Colonialism, poverty and corruption: Some thoughts on peace education to address these evils during the COVID19 pandemic (Puerto Rico)

This essay by Anita Yudkin is based upon remarks given during the April 13, 2020 webinar, “Peace Education and the Pandemic: Global Perspectives.”  You can find a full video from the webinar here.  This essay is also part of our “Corona Connections: Learning for a Renewed World” series exploring the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways it relates to other peace education issues.

By Anita Yudkin*, Puerto Rico

Several years ago Efrén Rivera Ramos, esteemed colleague and professor of law at the University of Puerto Rico, identified two overarching themes that need to be considered regarding human rights issues in Puerto Rico: colonialism and poverty[1].  I certainly agree that in order to address the implications of the current COVID19 pandemic for peace education, we must keep these evils at the center of our analysis.

Various other realities have besieged us in the past few years that need to be considered as a backdrop to the COVID19 pandemic and its effects on the people of Puerto Rico. First, is the collapse of governmental structures and the dismantling of public services, especially the education and health systems. This as a result of an ongoing economic and political crisis, the imposition of neoliberal privatizing policies by a U.S. federal government appointed Fiscal Control Board, and local government ineptitude and corruption.

Second, the devastation caused by hurricane María in September 2017, from which we have not completely recovered neither in terms of infrastructure, the economy, nor emotionally[2]. María showed us that our health system could not manage large numbers of people falling ill at the same time, and that the governmental forensic institute could not, and did not care to, even count the number of deaths resulting from the inadequate response to a not so natural disaster[3]. Yet, María also gave way to community organizing, and increasing realization that we needed one another in order to survive and move on after this tragedy.

Third, during the summer of 2019 we lived an unprecedented public outcry and massive manifestations that led to the resignation of then Governor Ricardo Roselló and the taking of office of his Secretary of Justice, Wanda Vázquez, as next in line. The protesters denounced the general disdain and inadequacy of measures to handle the emergency, the evident corruption in the managing of public funds, and political favoritism benefitting few close collaborators[4].

Thus, at the time of the first cases of COVID19 were reported in Puerto Rico, we were facing highly privatized health services that we knew were fragile, alongside decade long effects of budget cuts and inadequate response to natural disasters which severely affected the most impoverished and vulnerable sectors of the population[5]. Yet, we had gained experiential knowledge leading to a lack of trust in governmental policies and responses to this new crisis. Most important, we had peered into the idea that maybe the future could be different, that perhaps we could face the political inadequacies which have dragged us for so long.

The main measure taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic by Governor Wanda Vázquez and the Puerto Rico Health Department has been a strict lockdown and curfew, which at the time I write this essay is on its fifth week of implementation. The response has been highly militarized and both local police and National Guard personnel are the main enforcers of these measures. To the point that National Guard tanks, trucks, and workers patrol commercial areas with loudspeakers announcing that everybody should stay home. Police officers had made more arrests due to curfew violations during the first weeks of the lockdown than the number of COVID19 tests administered. Thus far, the social isolation measures seem to have had the effect of keeping the number of contagions low, which certainly is a positive development. And in general terms the vast majority of people are following these measures, even though at times specific orders have been changed on a weekly basis. Yet, the government has failed in organizing and administering an adequate number of tests, keeping track of much needed epidemiologic data, and tracing of cases. So we are not quite sure what is the true reach of this disease amongst the population.

Enter the political use of mass media to enforce the curfew, uphold candidacies for upcoming elections, and quiet any possible questioning or dissent to the established policies. The Governor’s press conferences have been highly staged, and few questions are seriously addressed. Amidst the pandemic, she has faced the removal of one Secretary of Health due to incompetence, and the resignation of another Secretary in relation to a corruption scandal regarding the purchase of COVID tests. She has appointed a third Secretary of Health who seems to be finally taking on the serious responsibilities required to address the health crisis. The Governor has also appointed a “health task force” that at first was a much welcomed initiative given that it is composed of highly qualified medical professionals. Yet two of its members, including the president of the task force, have been mired by the tests’ scandal. Her response to the critical questions posed by the press has been to doubt their intentions, and in one instance not including them at all by transmitting a previously recorded program with selected moderators.

So, what can peace education provide given this complex scenario? I put forth some ideas on addressing the COVID 19 pandemic based on general principles of educating for peace, in its interrelationship with human rights and sustainability.

  1. Understand the COVID 19 pandemic from a broad, multidisciplinary perspective. Peace education provides for the understanding of complex human problems, especially those affected by structural forms of violence. We should seek to comprehend the COVID19 pandemic and the response to this virus, from a holistic multidisciplinary perspective, one that allows for a thorough understanding of the phenomenon, including how colonialism, poverty and corruption are ingrained into the effects and response to this health crisis.
  2. Assume key values and principles of human dignity and non-discrimination. Human rights are at the core of any effort towards educating for peace. The inherent human rights principles of human dignity and non-discrimination provide a foundation for looking into how the COVID19 pandemic affects each and every person everywhere. Assuming these principles in our educational effort is key in providing a more just and equitable attention to the problem.
  3. Adopt a human security paradigm in contraposition to the military/police view of security. Peace education questions militarism and the culture of war it represents. It assumes that in constructing a culture of peace, we should be “free from fear” and “free from want”, aiming for human security in which our health, food, economic, environmental, personal and communal securities are guaranteed. This provides an alternative paradigm from which to understand how we tend to this global pandemic.
  4. Educate for sustainability in local food and energy production. Peace education and education for sustainability are intertwined as necessary means for addressing current global and local problems. As we have learned in prior crisis in Puerto Rico, we must support local food and clean energy production, reducing our dependence on imported goods in order to survive not only this pandemic, but also the severe consequences of global warming and climate change.
  5. Promote critical thinking and critical media literacy. Peace education must foster understanding of democratic principles based on human rights, as well as the role of citizen participation in upholding democracy, including the right to protest, freedom of expression, and access to information. This requires critical thinking competences, and critical media literacy so that the manipulation of public opinion and actions are questioned and overcomed. It also entails a pedagogy of questioning and inquiry into social problematics, such as this pandemic that leads to nonviolent action in confronting unjust policies.
  6. Adopt a Freirean perspective in denouncing the current situation, announcing ways to tackle it and create alternative futures[6]. I am convinced that peace education should adopt a Freirean perspective that aims to promote understanding of reality while emerging from that reality into another possible world. Freire proposes that we denounce injustice, and announce, dream, and pursue a future ruled not by the ethics of the market, but by an ethic of care towards the common good. Peace education can certainly direct us toward envisioning such alternative futures.

April 21, 2020

Notes / References

[1] Rivera Ramos, E. (2014, 23 de diciembre). Los otros derechos. El Nuevo Día, p.61.

[2] Bonilla, Y. & LeBrón, M. (2019). Aftershocks of disaster: Puerto Rico before and after the storm. Chicago, IL: Heymarket Books.

[3] Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI). (2018, 14 de sept.). Los muertos de María [serie].

[4] Colón Morera, J. (forthcoming). El “verano boricua”: Claves preliminares desde la mirada de los derechos humanos. En A. Yudkin Suliveres & A. Pascual Morán (Eds.) Descolonizar la paz: Entramado de saberes, resistencias y posibilidades. Antología conmemorativa del 20 aniversario de la Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Universidad de Puerto Rico.

[5] Martínez Arabona, A. (2017, 7 de diciembre). Justicia ambiental, desigualdad y pobreza en Puerto Rico. Informe ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.

[6] Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of indignation. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

About the Author*

Anita Yudkin is Coordinator of the UNESCO Chair on Education for Peace, and Professor at the Educational Foundations Department, University of Puerto Rico. She is an educator who strives to promote critical and transformative pedagogies, children’s rights, human rights, and peace education. She works on teacher professional development, educational initiatives with NGOs, and participates in the UNESCO Chairs Network on Human Rights. She has published extensively and has been invited speaker in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the United States. She holds Ph.D and M.A. degrees in Educational Psychology, and a B.A. in Education from the University of Michigan.

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