Image of apartment building
'There’s no longer a box outside of which to think’. Venezuelan apartment building. Photo ©

Pixabay, used under licence and adapted from the original.

May 2019

What is happening in Venezuela, what can the UK do to help, and why does it matter? Insight interviews Soraya Colmenares, the British Council’s Country Director in the beleaguered nation, about the cultural and educational implications of the crisis.

What is the current situation in Venezuela? 

Venezuela is in a state of collapse, politically, economically, and socially. There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to the political conflict in sight, and in the meantime there are serious shortages of food and medicines, severe hyper-inflation, extremely high levels of crime, frequent blackouts, and cuts in water supply. Over 10% of the population has fled the country in the last two years. 

Venezuela is in a state of collapse, politically, economically, and socially

What is likely to happen next?

Nobody knows what is going to happen. But there are perhaps three basic scenarios: 1) the present regime stays in power and everyday hardships continue; 2) a transitional government is set up and calls for fresh elections, as a result of negotiations or a military coup; 3) virtual civil war erupts following violent mass protests and/or military intervention.  

What is the impact of all this on Venezuela’s education and culture? How do you get involved on behalf of the UK? 

The 3.4 million emigrants include some of the most talented young Venezuelans from all fields, including education and the arts. Apart from this brain drain, the collapse of the economy (with a 25% contraction in 2018) has left social organisations in a precarious state, with little or no funding for projects. In addition, the government has exercised wide control over all aspects of social and economic activity, limiting the range of action of non-governmental entities. However, we have interpreted this scenario as an opportunity rather than a deterrent. Through careful analysis of the country’s needs (including systematic research, with three books published since 2015) and by identifying areas of activity in which UK expertise can really make a difference, we have succeeded in running substantial arts projects with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, aiming to attract young people away from crime and violence; and amazingly, we are working with the Education Ministry to train 8,000 teachers with a view to introducing English into Primary Education in Venezuela – we are the only European cultural organisation with this sort of access to the Ministry. We have also managed to maintain a Teaching Centre with over 1,000 students and to administer more than 500 international exams per year. We believe that this benefits Venezuelans and the UK: there is good evidence that speaking English increases employability and is positively associated with accessing a wider range of narratives as well of course as British cultural products.

The standing joke among staff is that there is no longer any box in Venezuela outside of which to think

More specifically, how have your everyday activities been affected by the instability? Have we had to change our approach in these difficult circumstances?

We have adapted to these trying circumstances in many ways, always pushing ourselves to think outside the box. In fact, the standing joke among staff is that there is no longer any box in Venezuela outside of which to think! One of our main concerns in the face of widespread (and often violent) social unrest, has been the security of staff and customers, and we have implemented various measures to deal with this threat, including tighter controls over access to the premises, better internal communications, more systematic monitoring of the day-to-day situation on the streets, and closer coordination with the UK embassy and Risk Unit in London. In the face of spiralling hyper-inflation, with prices often doubling every month, we persuaded London to dollarize staff salaries to protect their living standards. This meant charging classes and exams in foreign currency too, whilst keeping commercial operations in the black. And as hinted above, we have had to narrow the focus of our projects, harnessing our arts activity to the work of local NGOs and local authorities and keeping a low profile in our relations with the Education Ministry.  

Image of Barrio in Venezuela
‘A state of collapse: politically, economically, socially’. Barrio in Venezuela. Photo ©

Pixabay, used under licence and adapted from the original.

What role has the British Council played in Venezuela historically? 

We have been in Venezuela since 1941, witnessing a military dictatorship in the fifties; the teething problems of democracy and a fluctuating economy as oil prices have seesawed; and the turbulent 20 years of the Chavist revolution. By staying here through thick and thin the British Council has gained a reputation as an oasis of stability and reliability, earning respect from both sides of a heavily polarised political scene: we are the only international organisation to be working with the Ministry of Education, for example. The quality of the work which characterizes the British Council is enhanced by our knowledge of Venezuelan realities, from the Country Director (I am locally-appointed) down.

The British Council has just undertaken extensive research in neighbouring Colombia, on the views of young Colombians at the end of a long period of division and civil conflict. The research revealed huge energy, optimism, and desire to engage with the outside world, including the UK. Of course, Colombia is a different country with a very different situation, but do these findings have any relevance for their Venezuelan neighbours once the crisis is over? 

Yes, the Colombian findings will be relevant to Venezuela - once the conflict is over. At the moment Venezuelans are worried rather than optimistic about how the current conflict will be resolved; they are having to devote their energies to daily survival rather than preparing themselves for the future; and their focus is very much on national issues rather than engaging with the global village. But through our project work, especially in the Arts, we have witnessed tremendous enthusiasm among young professionals to learn from the expertise and experience of other countries, including the UK, and return the country to the international fold. 

How can the UK maintain connections with Venezuela, and what should UK policymakers & cultural and educational institutions be aiming to achieve there? 

We are well positioned to make the most of that positive attitude; our local knowledge and a reputation for quality will stand us in good stead with any government. We may, however, need to considerably widen our ambitions in order to play a major role in rebuilding Venezuelan society. For example, the UK’s education work hitherto has been limited to English language development, and we may want to consider taking a more comprehensive approach, such as offering aspiring bilingual schools a complete programme of support (as has happened in Colombia), which could be of interest to both consultants and publishers in the UK; and helping Venezuelan universities to “internationalise” themselves. In the arts we could play a vital role in reviving near-moribund cultural organisations, for example sharing our expertise in museum management or artistic entrepreneurship. If we “think big”, the post-conflict opportunities for the UK in this potentially oil-rich nation are enormous. 

Soraya Colmenares, British Council Country Director, Venezuela, 08/04/19

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