CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Public school teachers across Venezuela had planned to use their annual vacation bonus to buy uniforms for their children, waterproof leaky roofs, get new prescription glasses or fix the pair barely held together by adhesive tape.
Some expected to get $100, while others calculated a little more or less depending on their years of service and advanced degrees, though only a small number thought they would get around $200.
The government, however, paid them only a tiny fraction of that.
So, a few days into their long break, teachers have been marching by the thousands around the country, threatening to strike when school resumes or possibly even to abandon their profession.
“Right now, I don’t even have a pencil for my children to start classes in September,” said Florena Delgado, who teaches first and fifth grades at two schools in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods of the capital, Caracas.
She also makes cake toppers, creates balloon decorations and sells clothes to supplement her government pay. Unless something changes, “I don’t plan to join classes, and well, let it be what God wants,” she says.
In response to the unrest, the government announced Friday through a lawmaker that it will pay the bonus in full this week. But Venezuela's teachers are long accustomed to seeing televised economic promises that aren't kept, so they are waiting until they get their money before changing course.
Elementary and high school educators in the crisis-wrecked country on average earn about $50 a month, ranking among the lowest paid in Latin America. The government pays them a vacation bonus in a single payment at the end of every school year in July.
The National Budget Office based this year's bonus on the $1.52 monthly minimum wage of 2021 instead of the $30 rate that took effect in April. The government also paid teachers only 25% of the unexpectedly low bonus and did not set a date to disburse the rest.
The budget office defended the calculation, arguing that a new labor agreement has not been signed. But by Friday, National Assembly member Orlando Pérez, who is president of one of the country's teachers unions, said the government will pay teachers their full bonus as required by Venezuela’s labor law, which sets them based on the latest salaries.
Outside the offices of the Ministry of Education, teachers and college professors, who also earn meager wages and feel short-changed over their vacation bonus, have demanded the dismissal of the agency's leader. Some teachers said they didn’t even get the 25% payment.
Protesting teachers have been joined by other workers, including the traditionally government loyalists at the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela. Red T-shirts long associated with the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela were in abundance at one protest, in which workers from the health, cement and electric sectors expressed support for the teachers’ demands.
President Nicolás Maduro has not commented on the teachers’ complaints, angering some of them.
“He is a worker; he was a worker. He should remember that he comes from the very bottom" of the social ladder, elementary school teacher Leinni Carreño said of Maduro, who once was a bus driver and union member.
Teachers and professors work two, three or even four jobs, but their multiple paychecks sometimes are not enough to cover the basic food basket, which last month cost $392. Many teach under borderline hazardous conditions as pests, mold, filth and mosquito-attracting standing water are ever-present at schools.
Physics, chemistry and biology labs are long gone, and thieves took advantage of unsupervised schools during the pandemic to strip the buildings of copper wires and steal computers and other equipment.
Sociology professor Erly Ruiz earns about $90 a month. So, he also delivers goods around Caracas on his bike, works at a facility that produces blackberry wine and rents sound equipment. If his side hustles go well, his total income can reach about $400. He had earmarked his expected vacation bonus for an electrical home repair.
His budget is so tight, his friends gave him their leftovers from his birthday celebration last month.
“For a week straight, I was able to eat protein every day at least once a day,” Ruiz said after biking to deliver cat litter to a customer. “That week was the only week this entire year that I was able to eat protein regularly."
Professors and teachers alike have abandoned the teaching ranks since the country’s economic and political crisis began last decade. The Venezuelan Federation of Teachers estimates 50% of the country’s 370,000 teachers have left classrooms since 2017. They are among the more than 6 million Venezuelans who have migrated to other countries.
Even those who are still teaching don’t always fulfill their duties due to transportation, health, pay and other challenges. Some live so far away from the schools they are assigned to that their commute by public transportation eats up their salary.
Call center supervisor Jonás Nuñez sympathizes with the education workers. He was an elementary school teacher for 14 years but quit in 2020.
“The economic situation was what led to everything changing because I have a daughter, I have a family. So (the salary) no longer covered the expenses,” Ruiz said. “I miss it because you learned a lot from the children who were with you."
Teachers have threatened strikes in the past, but this time anger accumulated throughout the pandemic as they were forced to attempt to educate students with limited or no internet access, had to cope with a collapsed health care system and saw prices for basic goods soar amid Venezuela's unrelenting runaway inflation.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the U.S. and several other nations as Venezuela's legitimate leader, has expressed support for the teachers and professors. But he and the opposition parties have little impact on Maduro, whose regime controls all government institutions.
Delgado, who works a shift at one school in the morning and another shift at a different school in the afternoon, wants to keep teaching to be a role model for her students, but the discontent over the vacation bonus and regular pay is growing.
“There are many children who really need someone to guide them, to be there for them, who can really help them,” Delgado said. “It’s hard when you walk into a classroom and see that there are children who go to school just because they give them food.
"At school, you see that there are children who don’t have notebooks, who don’t have pencils because their parents are in the same situation as the teachers looking for a living, and they work day and night.”
Regina Garcia Cano, The Associated Press