Argentine Teachers Fast for Dignity


Dafne Sabanes Plou, Argentina

Pax Nidorf




At the heart of the dry and windy Patagonia in Argentina, a young professor of history decided to join the teachers' nonviolent protest in favour of public education and dignity for children and youth. Cecilia Pita is 26 years old and teaches in a secondary school in Cipoletti, Rio Negro. She spent a month, together with 26 other caring colleagues, in the huge white tent that was set up in April, right in front of the National Congress. They were there to show solidarity with the common people, the poor and the excluded, in a silent but strong protest.

Neo-Liberal economic policies in Argentina have tried to dismantle the public education system, a strong and good system that had, for over 100 years, provided free education for all. This has given Argentina one of Latin America's lowest illiteracy rates. These policies, that started to be applied in the early 90's, left public schools and their teachers alone to struggle for their own survival, whilst private schools started to flourish like mushrooms.

But not many years passed before the population became aware that there would be no future for Argentine children and youth without a strong public education system and that the new labour trends in a globalized society demanded highly educated people. In early 1997, the teachers' unions in several provinces started their protest. Their struggle is for better school buildings, better equipment, more investments in public education, and better wages for teachers and professors. In some places, the protest was repressed severely by police. Teachers were beaten in the streets and imprisoned. After one of these demonstrations was violently repressed, the National Teachers' Union decided that a group of teachers would start a protest fast in the city of Buenos Aires, and the tent was set up.

The first group of 27 teachers, one from each Argentine province, started their fast in April. From then on, every month a new group of teachers replaces the other. During the month they are in the tent, the teachers -- women and men, young and old -- fast publicly. They can be visited by anybody, including school delegations, artists, intellectuals, the religious, trade union leaders from abroad, university students, and all who want to express their solidarity with their struggle and their petition to Congress members and government in favour of public education.

The white tent has also become an important place where radio shows and TV programs are broadcast, theatre plays are staged, and choirs and orchestras perform in honour of the teachers and public education. It has become known as "The Tent of Dignity," a symbol for Buenos Aires inhabitants, 80% of whom favour the protest.

"The Tent now belongs to everybody," says Cecilia, who recognizes that solidarity with their protest and with public education has grown since April. "The Tent has become a reference point around which many social demands take place. It symbolizes a concrete demand right in the face of those who represent us in Congress. We know very well now that teachers are not alone in their struggle and that people are well aware that public education is a treasure that we must keep, defend, and enhance. We see that in none of the industrialized countries does the state leave aside education. On the contrary, education is seen as a strategic issue for the development of the country, and governments feel responsible for it. We feel that the same must happen in our country. We need to rebuild our values, our dignity, and our right for a just and equitable educational system, that brings equal opportunities for all."

Cecilia considers that the fast is "a call to our representatives to listen to the people's claims." The teachers consider that those in government and Congress need to see that people want them to make political options and generate changes. "This fast unites teachers all over the country and shows the reality of the situation of public education at present: poor schools, poor teachers, poor children. Teachers have lost their labour rights, their health system is in bankruptcy, and we know that without solidarity our society will not go forward."

"Our success has to do with a commitment to what we believe in. For me, being successful means being at the service of others and defending a common good, education for all," affirms Cecilia. "For the fasting teachers to have success would mean to have our schools full of the satisfactions that cannot be reached now because of low budgets and government's negligence. It would also mean having adequate salaries, so that our families may not suffer. And, of course, success would mean that our educational system respects each child's rights and that in the schools we can work in order to recuperate our values and start building a different society -- more just, less corrupt -- without impunity. We are sure that we are in the right track."

"At this moment, I'm confident that I'm where I should be," Cecilia goes on. "I couldn't be in another place, but fasting in this tent with my colleagues. I dream about recovering our social bonds so that we may work for justice and happiness. It might sound naive, but I want our children and youth to regain their right to be happy".

Dafne Sabenes-Plou is a free-lance journalist living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her focus is mainly on social and religious issues. She is an active leader and participant in many world associations. Dafne is currently the President of the Latin American Region of the World Association for Christian Communication whose headquarters is in London, as well as a member of both their Central Finance Committees.

Pax Nidorf spent the first 20 years of his life studying art and in other educational pursuits. The second 20 years were spent in intensive training in the Augustinian monastic order. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1962. Pax retired from the priesthood in the 1973, married, and began his private practice as a psychotherapist. He has been a productive artist as an adult and has had many one-man shows throughout the West. He has a large following in Southern California with a waiting list for his commissioned works.

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