Monday, September 9, 2013

Back to Caracas

Los Roques, Venezuela (December 13, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 14, 2004 ---

We are back in Caracas. Since I still didn’t take my camera out in the street of Caracas I am posting a photo of Los Roques that I took yesterday from the airplane. A kind of “au revoire” to Los Roques and the incredible colors of its water.

Los Roques aerial
We spent the whole morning at the headquarter of a foundation that provides loans for Venezuelan students that want to get a degree abroad (Mayli had one of such loans). The mechanism is simple and perverse. The loans are paid in the foreign currency of the place where the student is going to stay, converted into bolivares (the venezuelan currency) after each payment, and finally paid back in bolivares once the contract is closed. The loan has an interest rate tied to the venezuelan currency, which in recent years has been devalued by a large factor (it is currently 14% but has been even higher at some point). The end result is that a loan can increase to a very large amount by the time the student gets the diploma and closes the contract, especially in the case of a Ph.D. degree that typically takes many years to finish. In this case the monthly installments that a student may have to pay can be much higher than the average stipend of a venezuelan university professor. The consequence is that the debt can be practically impossible to pay, following the scheme of high interest loans that the World Bank forces down the throats of Developing World countries. To make sure that the loan is recovered, the foundation asks “fiadores” to co-sign the contract (third persons that will assume the responsibility of repaying the debt and the penalties in case the student is not solvent). To qualify as a fiador one needs to have enough money to be in the upper few percent of venezuelan society, e.g. even upper middle class citizens typically do not qualify. As a consequence, only people whose family already has the money to send its children abroad to study qualify for the loan, which complete the perversity of the system (Mayli’s parents didn’t qualify and she had to ask her uncle to sign the contract). The stated goal of the foundation is to promote higher education in the country, and considers a “failure” the case of students that do not come back in Venezuela after completing their degrees. Students that come back have a discount in their payments while students that do not return have penalties (in some cases they are required to pay back twice as much as the total loan). Apart from this, there are difficulties to overcome in order to get a new visa for the US after completing the program with the foundation.

I think this attitude is completely wrong. First of all, given that this is a loan and not a fellowship, it is an unfair burden to require the students to give the money back, and also forcibly return). One should also discuss the rationale for forcing people to live in a country not necessarily able to offer the kind of employment for which the person pursued the degree. Mayli is an high energy physicist. She is working at Harvard University on a neutrino experiment at Fermilab and in Minnesota. In Venezuela there is not a single high energy experimental physicist. Venezuela has so many other priorities that spending large amounts of money in high energy physics experiments would be simply outrageous (most of the money the government is spending in education goes to basic literacy programs, and professional courses, and this is the right thing to do in a country where a large segment of the population is illiterate). If she (and the other few venezuelan high energy physicists I know) were forced to return in Venezuela, she would be essentially wasted. My take is that she is much more useful to venezuelan society by working abroad. Having a contact in a prestigious scholarly institution is essential for venezuelan universities, because it allows exchanges (in term of studentships, research grant money in hard currencies, collaboration) which are indispensable for the growth of venezuelan scientific research. Returning home to be unemployed or hired with a low wage salary not even sufficient to pay the student loan does not seem a very clever scheme to me.

We spent the rest of the day home relaxing, and reading the email that have accumulated in the last few days (over 150 non-spam emails). The good news is that a project on which I am working on has been selected for a press release in the next American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego. You may read about my scientific work in your local newspaper in January The bad news is that the research is all but ready for publication, so I will have to work while here. Damn!

--- Updates (September 8, 2013) ---

After a long, expensive and complicated process, a few years later we managed to pay Mayli's student loan in full. We were probably the last (only?) people to ever repay the debt in full: shortly after we managed to pay and to get the release letter Mayli needed for her US Green Card, the program was reformed and the debt waived. It seems now to be more accessible (it is now a true fellowship), and the requirement to return to Venezuela to work for 3 years minimum in some government or social program has been strengthened. At least this is what I can figure out from their website; the practice in Venezuela is not necessarily what it looks like in theory. If this is truly a fellowship based on merit, the requirement of social work is not without merit: not much different than the GI bill in US (even though in that case service came before the benefits). Still I would not advise it for professions that would require working abroad, like physics, especially since in physics you can be admitted to graduate programs, based on merit, that include tuition, salary and health insurance: the salary is not very high, but you don't need to get a loan to do a Ph.D. in Physics.

Interesting side note: the program now allows postgraduate studies only in selected institutions, which are available in all continents except North America. This may have to do with the new stated mission of the foundation: "Formando Para el Socialismo". I guess the States don't do very well in terms of Socialist education.

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