Maria Arias slipped her notebooks into her backpack, scrounged for a banana to share with her brother and sister, and set off for high school through narrow streets so violent taxis will not come here for any price. She hoped at least one of her teachers would turn up.
The soaring crime and economic chaos stalking Venezuela is also ripping apart a once up-and-coming school system, robbing poor students such as Maria of any chance at a better life. Officially, Venezuela has cancelled 16 school days since December, including Friday classes because of an energy crisis.
In reality, Venezuelan children have missed an average of 40 per cent of class time, a parent group estimates, as a third of teachers skip work on any given day to wait in food queues.
At Maria’s school, so many students have fainted from hunger that administrators told parents to keep their children home if they have no food. And while the school locks its gate each morning, armed robbers, often teens themselves, still manage to break in and hold up children between classes.
“This country has abandoned its children. By the time we see the full consequences, there will be no way to put it right,” Movement of Organised Parents spokeswoman Adelba Taffin said.
Venezuela is a young nation, with more than a third of the population under 15, and until recently its schools were among the best in South America. The late president Hugo Chavez made education a centrepiece of his socialist revolution, using the riches from a historic boom in the price of oil to train teachers and distribute free laptops. The government even renovated Maria’s 1,700-student school and installed a new cafeteria.
In just a few years, all of that progress has been undone. A fall in the price of oil combined with years of economic mismanagement has brought the country to its knees, along with many of its seven million school students.
Maria’s mother Aracelis knows her children’s grades have fallen this year, though she isn’t sure how much. The school has not had supplies to print up report cards.
“I dropped out my freshman year and it set me back,” she said. “Maria goes almost every day, but I don’t know if she’s doing much better. Venezuela must have done something very terrible to be punished like this.”