Venezuela’s government is requiring school kids — some as young as 5 years old— to sign petitions and draw pictures against President Barack Obama as part of a state-orchestrated campaign to reject U.S. sanctions, according to a parents' association known as FENASOPADRES.
The group's spokeswoman told Fusion that parents have gathered dozens of photos that suggest the government is ordering teachers and students to participate in a nationwide campaign against Obama’s recent executive order that sanctioned seven Venezuelan officials.
“They are using the education system for political ends,” says group spokeswoman Nancy Hernandez. “And it’s not the first time that the government of Venezuela has used our education system to impose one way of thinking.”
Hernandez said one school in the central state of Yaracuy even tried to have kindergarteners sign their names on a petition demanding Obama reverse the sanctions. "No to the Venezuela is a threat decree issued by the empire," the petition reads.
Since most kindergarteners are too young to read and write, teachers pressed the kids' fingers into ink and rolled their fingerprints on the petition instead.
The government of Venezuela is circulating copies of this same petition in public plazas across the country. Their goal is to collect 10 million signatures before the Summit of the Americas on April 10, when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will come face to face with Obama.
Venezuelan authorities are also releasing Youtube videos — including ones with Maduro attempting to speak English, or something like it — and manufacturing support on social media with government-promoted Twitter hashtags such as #VenezuelaSeRespeta or “Venezuela Must be Respected.”
Hernandez says officials from the ministry of education are instructing public and private schools to conduct a variety of activities in support of the government's campaign.
A communique issued on March 16 by a school in the eastern city of Maturin notifies parents that, in order to comply with the Ministry of Educations requests, all students will have to write a letter asking Obama to “respect” Venezuela. “Students can also make drawings against Obama,” the letter instructs.
This email, dated March 11, instructs school officials in the Municipality of Heres to place a big ribbon outside their schoolhouses with the colors of the Venezuelan flag and a sign declaring that their school is “Venezuelan territory.”
“Let's collects signatures from all our kids, let's sign a [petition] that says aggression [against Venezuela] must stop!” the email reads. “These activities should be done this weekend in support of the campaign Venezuela Must be Respected.”
Humberto Gonzalez, Venezuela’s vice minister of education, insists his ministry has not ordered schools to have students write letters against Obama, or collect petitions against the U.S. sanctions. But he did not deny that someone in middle management might have “come up with that sort of idea,” according to the daily La Verdad.
The documents collected by parent groups such as FENASOPADRES are casting serious doubt on the Vice Minister’s claim. Here’s a hand-written letter sent to school officials in Puerto Ordaz stamped with the Ministry of Education’s official seal.
“By the orders of the Minister Hector Rodriguez, every teacher must ask his group of boys and girls to write letters to Barack Obama, rejecting the imperialist aggression,” reads the letter, dated March 12.
The Ministry of Education has also been holding anti-U.S. rallies in several Venezuelan schools. Education Minister Hector Rodriguez even shared a picture of one of these events on his Twitter account.
“Students from Falcon [state] closed ranks around the president and the fatherland by rejecting imperialist aggression,” Rodriguez tweeted. “In our tour of the country we ratified the political maturity and clarity of our students and youth,” the minister wrote in a follow-up message.
In the Caracas suburb of Antimano, a pro-government student union organized another rally against the U.S. sanctions and collected anti-Obama letters written by 10-year-old students.
A similar event was organized at a school in Falcon state on March 20.
The organizers of these events say everyone attended voluntarily.
But given Venezuela's current political climate, "voluntarily" has to be written in quotation marks. Hernandez argues it would be very difficult for students and teachers to avoid such rallies, or to ignore official directives to conduct anti-Obama activities.
“Around 75 percent of our country’s public school teachers are hired on a temporary basis, they have no job stability,” Hernandez told Fusion. “Any action they take that goes against the ministry’s orders can, at the very least, result in them getting fired.”
Hernandez estimates that as many as 15,000 schools nationwide received orders to conduct anti-Obama activities over the past two weeks.
“They are using the education system to promote partisan activities,” Hernandez said. “But we must remember that Obama’s sanctions only affect seven officials, and not the Venezuelan people.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.