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Venezuela: Taking a page out of Cuba's book hardly wise

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Lieutenant colonel Hugo Chávez explained it very clearly at the recent Monterrey summit: He and his nation are profoundly grateful to Fidel Castro's government for the help it provides in the field of education.

Thanks to the Cuban teachers and the teaching systems provided by Cuba, illiteracy will soon disappear from Venezuela and 400,000 youngsters will swiftly graduate from high school and enter, without further ado, municipal universities instantly created for that purpose.

Venezuela, then, will soon be a luminous focus of culture, like the Medicis' Florence or Vienna in the late 19th Century, and hopes are high that before 2010 the first Venezuelan astronaut will lift off from the Bolivarian Interplanetary Base at Sabaneta, birthplace of the colorful President Chávez.

Anyway, two days before traveling to Monterrey, by then very sure of his new pedagogical expertise, Chávez described Dr. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's principal national-security advisor and former Stanford University provost, as ''an illiterate,'' among other insults. And, to remedy that official's lamentable handicap, he announced he was rushing to her a copy of the Robinson Method so she could learn her first letters.

Teaching compliance

The Robinson Method assigns a number to each letter -- so the student can learn arithmetic at the same time -- and it seems that in a few weeks adults can read sentences like: ''My mother loves me, but I love the revolution.'' Sometimes the sentences are reversed and the students, unable to avoid a certain Freudian angst that makes them squirm at their desks, can spell out with a touch of guilt: ``My mother loves the revolution, but I love my mother.''

While Chávez made his triumphant announcements in Mexico, the government in Havana announced that it was barring access to the Internet to private citizens who do not pay for the service in dollars, a step that in practice means denying to 99 percent of Cubans all possibilities of obtaining information freely through the Internet.

Simultaneously, thanks to patroling informers who enter houses without prior notice, efforts were redoubled to uncover who owned concealed parabolic antennas capable of picking up TV channels from abroad, who owned undeclared video recorders or video collections with movies and documentaries deemed to be dangerous.

When those ''subversive'' materials are found, they are instantly confiscated, the owner is charged with possession of ''enemy propaganda and the means to spread it'' -- which may be punishable by several years' imprisonment. And in many cases the ''counter-revolutionary's'' home is taken away, or the family's telephone service is forever cut off.

Unjust imprisonment

Strictly speaking, these abuses can anger us but they cannot surprise us. They have been happening for decades. Dozens of people sitting in Cuban prisons have been sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for lending books from their humble ''independent libraries'' set up in some shabby room in their homes.

A summary of this situation is truly sad. The main and almost sole political objective of Communist dictatorships -- the government model that Chávez so admires -- is to keep the people from obtaining a pluralistic view of reality. The aim is to permit only one voice, one single interpretation of past, present and future events, one single source of knowledge and wisdom. There is no citizens' participation. There is a choir, a harmonious choir forced to repeat the litany imposed by the government.

There are no institutions. There are stables, where people are locked up so that they may rehearse, over and over, the words and music written by the infallible and implacable master, the owner of all truth.

That is perhaps the worst torment inflicted by socialism: To educate for obedience, not for freedom. To give people the chance to read, but only so they can repeat -- like parrots -- the sacred textbooks selected by the bureaucrats. To teach them to write, even in good script, but only so they can copy, over and over, the marvelous speech delivered by the beloved leader.

That is the reason for the unending melancholy felt by the ''intelligentsia'' in totalitarian countries. No one is as unhappy as the person who finds himself obliged to sell his words and his conscience to an all-powerful boss. Nothing causes greater pain or personal shame than to live, day after day, the mismatch between what one thinks, what one says and what one does. That's the source of all anxieties and numerous deep depressions.

Forcing justification

Why do jailers go through the effort of educating those who they plan to castrate intellectually? The first reason, the propaganda reason, is terribly selfish: To use that popular education -- transformed into statistical data -- to build an alibi that will justify the dictatorship.

The second reason is perverse: It is always more convenient to have educated rather than ignorant slaves, as long as they obey docilely.

I don't know which of these reasons prevails today in Chávez's heart. But if he achieves his purpose he's going to do his compatriots a lot of harm.

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