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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

The Interventionist Parenthesis

During the period from 1914 to 1917, the unexpected emergence of a radical and polemical figure to the presidency ushered in “the interventionist parenthesis,” a period when Liberal dominance was questioned and tampered with, from the apex of the polity. It was a vanguard attempt that was to have a very specific outcome for education.

While previous presidents had resorted to traditional Liberal nostrums as solutions to the chronic economic problems of the country, President Alfredo González Flores called for a profound tax reform and state interventionism, particularly in the fields of banking and education.8

González Flores made very clear the emphasis his administration placed on education. Drawing upon modern pedagogic and social theories, he designed a new approach for the school system with both individual and collective aims. Thus, the school system was to prepare and train students not only to reach individual goals but also to improve society as a whole.

In a society marked by the “free spirit of Liberalism,” the education reform project sponsored by government was to cause tremendous commotion. Not only did it exert rigid regulation over private education—which was effectively controlled by the Catholic Church—and concentrate “dangerous amounts of power” into the hands of state officials, but led to high levels of government expenditure. The zealously preserved pyramidal structure of education, a key element for the preservation of the establishment, would have been undermined by widening the scope of education through many scholarships and state-supported institutions.9

On January 27, 1917 a coup d’etat led by the Minister of War was to erase the interventionist parenthesis. The movement reflected deep social and political resentment toward the González Flores administration. Even though the “consensual tendency” had been disrupted by the military coup—the first since 1870—it was to receive overwhelming popular support.

Unaware of the real causes of economic turmoil, and cleverly led by the press, popular opinion blamed the President for the critical situation. The meaning of his proposed reforms was not grasped by the popular masses, and thus, they did not support Alfredo González Flores. In any case, it was not the masses who were to decide the administration’s fate. Long-entrenched interests and benefits threatened by the President’s interventionist thrust had been able to form an opposition front that was increasingly united. The coup d’état was to be the radical outcome of their activities.

Though President González manifested desire for reelection was the pretext for the movement, the fact is that the fiscal and education reforms had been the major cause of reaction. Not only had he alienated the coffee barons, the Catholic Church, the financial oligarchy and foreign investors—in particular, banana and crude oil interests—but had threatened the political and social order. Within the context of increasing economic turmoil and social discontent, the masters of the political arena thought it necessary to regain complete control of the state apparatus. The established order had to be preserved, and with it, the interests of the dominant groups.

Aside from fiscal and banking concerns, dominant groups could not accept the proposed educational changes. Within the prevailing liberal scheme, education was expected to keep to its assigned role: on one hand, to transmit rudimentary knowledge to the majority of the population and to standardize values, beliefs, and a particular worldview; on the other, to prepare the elected few to direct the state apparatus and economic development. By means of differentiated training, education allowed the reproduction of the prevailing class division in the context of a highly polarized, though not always evident, social structure.

The proposed educational reform would have altered the Liberal scheme considerably. Widening education’s scope and making the benefits of education available to many more students were to produce immediate reaction. The real opposition came from the government’s public abandonment of the Liberal ideas.10

After the interventionist threat was overcome, the most conspicuous Liberal intellectuals were determined to legitimize promptly the political regime as well as to ratify the threatened Liberal parameters. Although many of the interventionist measures were reverted—among them, the most radical education changes—the economic wreckage caused by the European war, the refusal of the United States to recognize the “de facto” government, and the growing popular discontent made it impossible to obtain political and social stability. The brief Tinoco administration (1917-1919) would be recorded in history under the stigma of censorship, repression, and corruption.11

After the Tinoco fiasco, the temporary dislocation of social power and control opened the political arena to new social actors. The emergence of fresh political protagonists stimulated serious conflict that centered on acquiring, maintaining, and increasing power at the ideological level. Newcomers strived to overcome the Liberal scheme and reformulate a more ample and democratic “political pact.” During four years, and in the midst of strong ideological confrontation, the educational debate became crucial at the political arena.12