SOUTHCOM Teams up with Guatemala to Improve Quality of Education
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo March 08, 2018Under the auspices of the Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster, and Civic Aid (OHDACA) program coordinated by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the Guatemalan Army builds school desks. The mission supports the “Desks for Our Children Campaign” for Guatemalan students at underserved rural schools to study in a suitable learning environment.
“This is the first time a donation of this nature has been made in Guatemala and in Latin America. The Security Cooperation Office in Guatemala, under the auspices of OHDACA’s humanitarian aid section, provides all the materials needed to build school desks,” U.S. Army Major Sergio López, SOUTHCOM’s Humanitarian Assistance Program representative in Guatemala, told Diálogo. “In August 2017, following a thorough analysis, SOUTHCOM decided to approve this low-cost initiative in support of the Guatemalan Ministry of Education.”
Given the needs of the nation’s primary schools, the Guatemalan authorities, in coordination with SOUTHCOM, “made it a priority to provide desks to students at educational centers located in remote and disadvantaged areas that suffered the effects of the long civil war in past decades [1960-1996],” Maj. López said. “I’ve been to places where children study under plastic roofs, seated on stones. These educational institutions have so many needs.”
“This donation helps us provide school children good-quality desks to improve conditions in the classrooms where they receive their lessons, through an alliance with SOUTHCOM,” Guatemalan Army Colonel Ronald Salvador Tobías Ayala, head of the Department of War Materiel (SMG, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “This aid reaches populations where the level of education and conditions of school equipment are inadequate.”
As part of the Guatemalan Army’s comprehensive action plan, service members from different military commands make up the production line for the school desks. SMG specialists from the unit’s various workshops—carpentry, painting, welding, and from the weapons department— train service members. The SMG unit is responsible for optimizing the useful life cycle of the Guatemalan Army’s vehicles, weapons, explosives, and ammunition.
According to Maj. López, the Army built 2,700 desks as of February 23, 2018. Each month, service members manufacture 900 desks at a cost of $15,000. “SOUTHCOM delivers financial resources directly to companies that provide the supplies to build these desks,” Col. Tobías said.
The school desks are built of plywood on a frame of industrial tubing, with a brushed metal tray, stainless steel screws and rivets, paint, and plastic caps. Maj. López and Col. Tobías agreed that the furniture is of better quality that what can be found among commercial manufacturers and that it may last up to 10 years.
The “Desks for Our Children Campaign” was launched to support the “Development Train” program, a Guatemalan initiative, created in 2016. Guatemalan Armed Forces work in collaboration with 10 ministries to implement anti-poverty projects such as road construction, desk manufacturing, and security assistance. “Due to a lack of financial resources, we requested SOUTHCOM’s assistance to continue to build these school desks,” Col. Tobías explained.
According to the Guatemalan Ministry of Education’s report 2016-2019 Strategy for Addressing School Infrastructure at the Preschool, Primary, and Secondary Levels, the government invested $91 million in school furniture and the retrofitting, construction, and rebuilding of schools in 2017. Of these resources, $76 million came by way of loans and donations.
The greatest contribution
Industrial equipment (lathes, milling machines, and grinders) that the U.S. government donated to the Guatemalan Army in the 1960s, through the Office of Security Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala—to conduct automotive repairs—allows for school desks to be built. “Now that the civil war ended, this equipment is the greatest contribution to carry out our assigned mission,” Col. Tobías said. “Our specialists did minor changes to the lathes. Once this campaign is over, they’ll go back to being used for what they were designed.”
“SOUTHCOM promotes and supports Guatemala’s development. Through its cooperation, it contributes to childhood development, which, in the short term, will produce better citizens, better people with a better quality of life than what they had available to them before the desk campaign began,” Col. Tobías said. “The student population, parents, and principals at these educational centers are profoundly grateful to the Guatemalan Army and U.S. Southern Command for this no-cost contribution,” he added.
“For SOUTHCOM, it’s important to assist our partner nations on issues of health and education. The raison d’être of the Guatemalan Army is the people,” Maj. López concluded. “This donation will last as long as it’s needed and as long as SOUTHCOM funds continue to flow.”