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La Educación
Número: (114) I
Año: 1993

Brazil in the Latin American Context

Brock (1985) states that Latin America was once portrayed by an eminent geographer as being a “harmony of contrasts” and that such a phrase could well be used to epitomize its educational character. Latin America is usually spoken of as if it were a single entity. However, for Brock, the region embodies many racial and cultural differences, and the indigenous inhabitants and the European colonizers have created a rich medley of peoples. Within the countries of Latin America or within regions of countries, as in Brazil, there are also enormous geographical and political differences . Some of the most refined forms of culture are found a short distance from poverty-stricken urban areas—a phenomenon that frequently occurs as a result of development itself—and from rural areas. Moreover, near at hand are communities which, mutatis mutandis, live in very precarious situations. In Brazil, where distances between the different regions reflect the gigantic scale of the country, tiers of interlocked and hierarchial responsibility extend from national to regional to local scale of territorial administration, and within each of these levels, from urban to rural.

For a century and a half, the history of educational development in Latin America has exhibited alternative phases of growth and retrenchment that have been remarkably concordant throughout the region. The periods of growth are characterized by an expansion of state provided for under populist or socialist governments, while in between, the private sector has been favored by more conservative regimes. The nature of the policy does not seem to have related necessarily to the degree of autocracy, oligarchy, or military control present during such phases; all three being common, almost endemic, features of Latin American political history. This pattern has probably more to do with the strong influence on the region from the outside world in economic terms, particularly from the United States.

Despite relatively early independence, the emerging economies of the Latin American republics were drawn into a position of dependency within the world economic order. To fight dependency, the provision and operation of education played a significant role in the region, and will continue to do so. However, as a consequence of a combination of elitist educational philosophy, oppressive political control, and economic constraint, the ideals of universal education provision enshrined in the republican constitutions of Latin America have yet to be realized in most countries of the region even at the primary education level. Networks of political and cultural control emanate from the cities through a web of increasingly deficient school provision, with local political figures frequently assuring the effective maintenance of the status quo.

Despite the overall context of social and political problems—permanent suffering from neglect or from insufficient resources which has resulted in very large groups of people remaining illiterate—the last 30 years of Latin American education have been characterized by optimistic goal setting and an increase in the importance of the education sector. In the 1950s the education sector experienced the beginning of a process of remarkable quantitative expansion and development. However, the second half of the 1980s was marked by a decrease in the level of investment in education which affected the region’s educational achievements. The 1980s marked a major change in the economic history of the Latin American region and the former period of growth came to an end at the outset of the decade. Social expenditures in education and health fell during the decade (Grosh, 1990; IDB Report, 1989; The 1990 World Bank Report). By and large this phenomenon was caused by the enormous external debt of the countries in the region. In terms of gross domestic product (GDP) of each Latin American country, education in particular suffered serious cuts. One immediate implication of the impact of the external debt on education was a slowdown in the development of education in each of the countries in the region (Reimers, 1990). Consequently, achievements in education are far behind the “rhetoric” of education expressed by government programs.1

Coombs (1985) mentions that in addition to the economic crisis, the region also suffered from a so-called worldwide crisis of confidence in education itself. In discussing the crisis, the author calls for a fundamental change in the paradigms which guide educational reforms, mainly in developing countries. He speaks of reforms that should not only continually support overall educational achievements, but also solve problems of internal efficiency of education as well as quality of schooling. So far the educational reforms—which are aimed at improving access to low income children—have failed to minimize the gap between Latin American countries and the most industrialized nations. Even between North America and Latin America differences exist in virtually all aspects of life and concepts of the individual, the society, and the relationship between the two (Harrison, 1985).2 These differences ought to be considered within the framework of policy decisions. Nowadays, although technology has been reducing these differences, the Latin American critical socio-economic situation has continued to widen them, mainly between the high- and low-income segments of the population within the region. These factors highlight the important role which education should play in diminishing these differences, and which policy makers should play in selecting policy options to reduce the gap between developed and developing nations.