Proposed reforms to the education system have resulted in tense stand-offs between students, their teachers and riot police across Guatemala. Just this week at least 40 people were injured after riot police were called in to break up a protest.
The crux of Education Minister Cynthia del Aguila’s proposed changes is a requirement that those who are studying to become primary school teachers will have to study for two additional years—for a total of five years of training—and complete a university degree. This has split public opinion between those who believe the country's educators should be well-educated and those who are concerned that there will be fewer teachers because of the increased costs that will result from more training.
Teaching is one of the few professions that does not require a university degree in Guatemala, with the result being a surplus of teacher supply.
Complicating the picture is the pending reelection of Joviel Acevedo, the general secretary of the Guatemalan Education Workers Union. After 14 years in the position, Acevedo has overseen numerous labor disputes but remains popular with teachers after helping to push through two recent pay raises despite warning from consecutive finance ministers that there is no money in the budget to pay for them.
The role of the education minister is also fraught with uncertainty. Over the past 12 years, there have been 18 education ministers, including three appointments in a six-month period. A combination of poor infrastructure, dilapidated buildings and a lack of teaching hours has resulted in the mandated 180 school days per year remaining a pipe dream. Guatemala generally places poorly on international standardized tests with a system plagued by difficult labor relations.
“I think the reforms are a good idea but maybe the government could subsidize the three years of university education,” said teacher Carmen Vega. “At the same time there are thousands of underprivileged people who manage to attend university, so why can’t teachers if they really value education?”
Along with the reforms for teacher preparation, a national seminar in mid-June in Guatemala City added further uncertainty to the situation by proposing curriculum changes that would give a “Guatemalan curriculum for Guatemala.” The Association of Private Schools came out against the proposals, claiming that they would do little good in rural Guatemala.
To protest these reforms, staff and students have been staging sit-ins or school takeovers, especially in Guatemala City and the departments of Quetzaltenango and Retalhuleu.
Many of these educational protests were staged at the University of San Carlos (USAC), traditionally an establishment with an anti-authority stance. Undergraduates at USAC complained that increased enrollment levels would devalue their degree and make finding employment more difficult.
The tense situation continued earlier this week when teachers and del Aguila met to discuss the proposed rescheduling of classes in three affected schools to alternative sites. Before the meeting could start, vocal supporters of the teachers surrounded the room and chanted, “If you are afraid, you should quit.”
Del Aguila pleaded for assistance after some protesters turned up armed with sticks and stones with their faces covered. Riot police arrived and launched tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd whilst the minister and her personal security officers made their way to a deserted classroom. At least 40 people were injured in the incident including children, teachers, journalists and police officers. Of them, 15 people suffered injuries severe enough to require hospitalization, including three photographers and a journalist. Twenty-five students who refused hospitalization were treated at the scene for the effects of tear gas inhalation.
Injured and holding gauze on his arm, Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla attempted to make his way to the Industrial Park but had to leave. As he was led away to medical assistance, López shouted to watching journalists, “This is a kidnapping. A crime!"
Del Aguila was escorted to the National Palace where she held a press conference and stated, “I am offended as a Guatemalan and disappointed as an educator.”
After repeatedly bursting into tears in front of the media, she left in an ambulance and was reported to have suffered a nervous breakdown. Later reports suggested it was a panic attack that resulted in her fainting.
The day ended with students forming human chains around their schools to stop the Polícia Nacional Civil from entering. The interior ministry claimed that all schools were back under state control by 9:00 pm.
This is the first real test of Pérez Molina’s administration in the capital city. Given his liberal use of states of emergency in the national hospital and San Marcos, it will be interesting to see how he reacts to this latest wave of civil unrest. But the more crucial question for Guatemala is what reforms can and should be implemented to improve a subpar educational system.
Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.