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.