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Protests in Colombia, Elections in Peru, and Other Chaos in the Andes

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In the eight years since the death of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, at the age of fifty-eight, his vaunted “Bolivarian” revolution to unify the Andean nations of South America has gone the way of most fever dreams. The region remains in ferment, beset by varying degrees of social, economic, and political chaos. Beyond their shared geography, the seven countries have analogous histories, beginning with the Spanish conquest. The colonial period ended, after independence wars led by Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, in an equally bloody carve-up into nation-states. They are mostly still newcomers to democracy, having endured periods of military rule and, in some cases, civil war, into the late twentieth century. Venezuela and Colombia ended their military dictatorships in the late nineteen-fifties, but Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru did not experience democratic restoration until the late seventies and early eighties, and Chile was the last to see off a dictator, Augusto Pinochet, in 1990.

Now hopes for a sustained democratic rebirth have waned, again, in the face of rampant official corruption and unresolved social inequities. Populism, authoritarianism, and military participation in politics remain in vogue. (The syndrome also holds in non-Andean neighbors, notably Brazil, as well as in the Central American nations of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.) During the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has made the situation much worse. Latin America accounts for less than nine per cent of the world’s population but nearly a third of the global pandemic death toll, which can be explained, in part, by the bungling or negligence of a number of governments. In most countries, the vaccination rollout has been abysmal, and without major outside assistance the pandemic will persist long after it has been contained elsewhere. Last year’s economic downturn in the region has plunged millions of people into poverty. Unattended social, political, and economic maladies sparked social unrest in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia before the pandemic. Now, entirely predictably, the unrest has returned—most seriously, so far, in Colombia.

In April, President Iván Duque proposed a tax increase, which was met by a general strike, mass protests, and clashes with the police that have continued for weeks–even after Duque withdrew the increase. Some fifty people are reportedly dead from the unrest, and hundreds have been injured. After a year of economic deterioration, in which the G.D.P. dropped by nearly seven per cent—the largest decline in half a century—and an estimated more than forty-two per cent of Colombians lived in poverty, the proposed tax increase, which would have affected working-class incomes by increasing the cost of food staples, was an unbelievably obtuse initiative.

Duque, who is forty-four, took office in 2018. His mentor, the former President Álvaro Uribe, who served from 2002 to 2010, is an ultraconservative. (Uribe has been under investigation for years in connection with a suspected sponsorship of right-wing paramilitary violence, which he has denied.) Duque’s own administration has been dogged by several scandals, involving corruption and spying on political opponents. He has also criticized the peace deal that his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, signed with the country’s FARC guerrillas, in 2016, after fifty-two years of war. In that deal, thousands of guerrillas laid down their arms, but in the years since hundreds of former fighters and social activists have been killed in paramilitary campaigns. Several thousand former fighters have now returned to the battlefield. Duque’s failure to fully implement the peace agreement is one of the protesters’ main complaints, Sergio Jaramillo, a former senior government official and a lead negotiator in the peace talks, told me, adding that a large part of the problem is Duque’s “total incapacity to read the historic moment,” which, he said, “is pushing us back to ‘conflict’ mode.”

Duque and Uribe’s camp has repeatedly linked the social unrest to alleged plots hatched in Cuba, Venezuela, and even Russia, to bring the extreme left to power. The charges are unproved, but they carry weight with the traditionally conservative armed forces, which are, depending on how it’s calculated, the second or third largest in the Western Hemisphere. The political journalist María Jimena Duzán told me, “There is a President who governs completely disconnected from the reality of his country. And the youngsters of the slums, in their majority the offspring of war-displaced parents, are fed up with his lack of empathy.” She added, “Their strike slogan was: ‘Uribe paraco’—the slang term for a paramilitary—‘el pueblo está berraco’—the people are pissed off.”

Some see Duque’s approach as a show-of-force preamble to next year’s Presidential elections, although he himself is not eligible to run—since 2015, the country’s Presidents are limited to one term. As in 2018, his party’s chief rival is the leftist senator Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá who had been a member of another guerrilla group, the M-19, in the late seventies and eighties. Duque beat Petro by a twelve-per-cent margin, but, in recent months, Petro has led in the polls. Just as Duque and Uribe’s circles blame the protests on foreign groups, they frequently claim that Petro is behind the protests, alongside Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, which, according to Duque, “sustains itself with the resources of drug trafficking” and “shelters terrorists.” In a country that has rarely been at peace with itself—notwithstanding its ability to convene elections every four years—it’s perhaps unsurprising to find that Colombia’s democracy is far from healthy.

It has been twenty-two years since Chávez first won election in Venezuela, but his syncretic brand of populist government still dominates the nation’s politics. Maduro, since succeeding Chávez, has managed, with the military’s support, to entrench himself, despite the virtual collapse of the oil industry, U.S. sanctions packages, and various ham-fisted attempts during the Trump Administration to seek his removal. Maduro’s ability to stay in power may well be his main political virtue. Roughly eighty per cent of the population was believed to be living in extreme poverty last year, and some five and a half million people are thought to have left the country. Urban slums and great swatches of the rural interior are the turf of criminal gangs, and sections along the border continue to be sanctuaries for generations of Colombian guerrillas, some of whom are said to be covertly aligned with Maduro’s government and engaged in clandestine economic activities that include drug trafficking and gold mining. (Since late March, Venezuelan troops have reportedly been fighting with a faction that would have broken the terms of an agreement under which its presence was previously tolerated.)

Earlier this year, the Biden Administration reaffirmed its support for the opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who declared himself, essentially, a parallel President, in 2019, and was recognized as such by the Trump Administration and other governments. At the time, Juan S. Gonzalez, President Biden’s Latin America adviser on the National Security Council, told me that the Administration wants to “see some leg” on fair elections and other issues before entering into any dialogue with Maduro’s regime.

In the past few weeks, Maduro has made what appears to be some good-will gestures. He transferred six executives of Citgo, the U.S.-based, Venezuelan-owned oil-refining company, from prison to house arrest in Caracas. The so-called Citgo 6 have been held since 2017 on charges of corruption; they have denied any wrongdoing. Maduro also agreed to let the World Food Program begin conducting humanitarian relief in Venezuela. Last month, the government-controlled National Assembly appointed a new National Electoral Council to oversee gubernatorial and municipal elections to be held next November. Significantly, two of the council’s five principal members are linked to the opposition. Meanwhile, Guaidó, who has had millions of dollars channelled to him by the U.S., made an offer of dialogue. Maduro agreed to communicate with the opposition if, among other things, the U.S. government would lift its sanctions against Venezuela.

So far, the White House has adopted a wait-and-see stance. But Representative Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called on the Administration to seize upon Maduro’s moves as an opportunity for engagement. This week, Gonzalez, Biden’s Latin America adviser, acknowledged the new developments. “The Maduro regime has taken some recent steps that show promise but which can be quickly reversed,” he told me. “There also appears to be steps to begin a dialogue with members of the opposition. We are supportive of such efforts, and if this continues to move forward we will be supportive, and may even be able to take some good-will gestures, but what we really want to see is movement toward free and fair elections.”

The Venezuelan democracy activist Roberto Patiño also welcomed the recent opening to the opposition. “I think there are some very interesting signs,” he said, but he advised caution, calling it a “first step.” “We have to try to see that the seed that has been planted, with the presence of these two persons in the National Electoral Council, can be germinated and bring about other important things needed to improve the quality of life of the Venezuelan people,” he said.

In Ecuador, a second round of voting was held in April to find a replacement for the outgoing President, Lenín Moreno. It ended with an upset: Guillermo Lasso, a sixty-five-year-old former banker and mainstream conservative, beat the thirty-six-year-old Andrés Arauz, a leftist protégé of Rafael Correa, a three-term former President, who was, in turn, a Chávez protégé. (Correa, a populist who aligned Ecuador with Venezuela and Cuba and brought in major Chinese investments, is now in exile, in Belgium; last year, an Ecuadorian court sentenced him in absentia to eight years in prison, on corruption charges. Correa’s critics feared that an Arauz victory would have paved the way for the former President’s comeback.)

When I asked the journalist Sabrina Duque whether she believed that Lasso’s election means that Ecuador had ended its long flirtation with populism, she answered, “I won’t deny that I breathed a little more easily when Lasso won, and also since seeing his Cabinet picks. I never expected to see a gentleman who belongs to Opus Dei”—the ultraconservative Catholic organization—“name a human-rights activist and feminist as one of his ministers.” She also noted that Lasso’s acceptance of a recent Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape shows a willingness to seek broader social consensus. (In Ecuador, as in most of Latin America, abortion is illegal; last year, Argentina became the third South American country to legalize it, after Guyana and Uruguay.) But, she added, “Ecuador has populism in its DNA, and I believe that there is no remedy for that until the day when ordinary people are able to meet their basic needs. And, the fact is, the construction of a state that guarantees health care and quality education is still not on anyone’s agenda.”

Beyond the political uncertainties, Ecuador has an economic crunch looming. In 2019, then-President Moreno said that the national debt stood at nearly seventy-five billion dollars, a significant amount of which was accumulated during Correa’s Presidency on costly infrastructure projects and is owed to China. Jorge Imbaquingo, the political editor of the leading daily, El Comercio, pointed out that it will be difficult for Lasso to meet debt-interest payments, and that any austerity measures he tries to enact “will be seen as an affront by the popular classes, and another uprising could erupt, just like the one in Colombia.”

In Peru, which has seen the greatest degree of political atomization of any of its neighbors—with five Presidents in the past five years (one of whom lasted just six days), the suicide of a former President, and the jailing or house arrest of four others on various charges—a second round of voting in a general election is scheduled for June 6th. In the first round, in April, two candidates emerged from a field of eighteen in a bid to replace the interim leader, Francisco Sagasti, a respected academic and congressman who was voted in by the Parliament, for stability’s sake, in November. The contenders represented a baroque sampling of Peruvian society, including a wealthy businessman who flagellates himself in a daily reaffirmation of his Catholic piety. He came in third.

No less baroque, in a sense, are the candidates who came in first and second. The front-runner, a provincial schoolteacher named Pedro Castillo, who habitually wears a traditional straw hat, terrifies the business élites and right-wing voters, who see him as openly embracing socialism. Castillo did describe the current political contest as “between rich and poor . . . the master and the slave.” His rival, Keiko Fujimori, is a perennial also-ran. Dubbed a right-wing populist, she is the daughter of the former President Alberto Fujimori, who held office for ten years in the nineties and is currently serving twenty-five years for corruption and crimes against humanity, including two massacres conducted by a military death squad during the government’s battle against the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. Keiko Fujimori herself recently emerged from her third stint in detention, on charges of laundering money, including from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, to finance her previous Presidential runs. She was released, owing to COVID considerations, and has spent a total of nearly seventeen months in detention thus far. (She has denied the charges and refused to testify in the Odebrecht case, citing bias among the prosecution.) She faces a thirty-year sentence if found guilty; if she is elected, she would be immune from prosecution. Gustavo Gorriti, one of Peru’s top investigative journalists, who was kidnapped in 1992, a crime for which Alberto Fujimori was found responsible, is known as a cool-headed man. But he confessed to feeling shaken by the current impasse. “I’d hoped that by now we’d be heading toward a healthier society,” Gorriti said. “Of course, we must never abandon faith in the possibility of finding a path forward, but this is profoundly depressing.”

The candidates are waging a media war that reflects the polarized nature of the race. “Think of the Future of Your Children: No to Communism,” anti-Castillo billboards read in Lima, while a banner headline on the front page of the conservative tabloid Correo noted that, in one speech, Castillo had uttered the communist-sounding word “pueblo”— the people— forty-four times. Opponents accuse him of wanting to do in Peru what Chávez did in Venezuela. Even Mario Vargas Llosa, the conservative Peruvian novelist, who ran for President in 1990 and lost to Alberto Fujimori, and who fiercely opposed Keiko Fujimori’s previous bids, warned that Peru “faces an abyss” and urged his countrymen to vote for her now as “the lesser of two evils.”

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Cynthia Ozick on Never-Never Lands

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Your story “The Coast of New Zealand” revolves around a group of friends from library school who make a pact to meet for a meal once a year, and not to communicate between meetings. Did you know from the start what the outcome of the pact would be?

Photograph by Ulf Andersen / Getty

“The Fanatic” was my original title, and it was this notion that ultimately compelled what was to come, both what I knew beforehand and what turned up, all on its own, to surprise. I have always been drawn to the idea of the fanatic, the zealot, the proselytizer, the Johnny One-Note, the deceiver, the false explainer—the enemy of the ordinary. Sometimes his name is Bartleby. Sometimes his name is Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes his name is Aylmer, practitioner of the relentless science of perfection. But here his name is simply George.

The four characters are, to some degree, anachronistic, drawn together initially by their old-fashioned names—Evangeline, Olive, Ruby, and George—and their old-fashioned choice of profession. Is that aura of fustiness essential to the story?

Fusty, yes, but not in the way of moldy or decaying; rather, in the wafting purity of a forgotten innocence. Even Olive’s attempt to replace her name with the more up-to-date Susan only reinforces her almost maidenly self-consciousness. And the pre-digital library, with its fans and date stamps and ancient wooden cabinets, declares long-ago simplicities. George alone, despite his commonplace name, is looking for fiery dragons to slay.

Yet if their agreement—“the Pact”—is the opposite of fusty, what is it really? “To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism.” What did you (or George) mean by that?

Walter Pater’s famous credo is also George’s: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But the story questions whether George has, in truth, lived up to this passion. And whether the rest of us ought to—and, if not, then what is “success in life”?

George’s rules for the Pact make a real impression on Evangeline—to the point that she almost rejects a loving relationship that she doesn’t think is in keeping with those rules. Why do you think she is so affected by George’s prescriptions while the other women aren’t?

Evangeline’s partners in the Pact are entertained by George’s outrageous pronouncements, but they do, as we soon learn, have their feet on the ground, and look to the future—suitable jobs, marriage, children—as a pragmatic progression appropriate to any normal life. But Evangeline is mesmerized by the exceptional, a vision of transcendence; she has an avarice for the peaks of experience that George inspires. The others are too quickly satisfied by the everyday.

Why did you dispatch George to New Zealand? Simply to get him as far away as possible?

Evangeline’s trust in George’s extraordinary spirit is at first absolute. Like him, she sees New Zealand as the acme of what he calls his “solitary will.” (As for me, I never for even a minute believed that George went to New Zealand.) So immersed is she in George’s tenets that she takes the preposterous for the truly original, while we can see (or maybe not?) that New Zealand is no more than a never-never land.

But only look at his history as he tells it: his parents a double suicide, à la Stefan Zweig and his wife; his great-uncle and his great-aunt vaudevillians, their closets stuffed with costumes (is his showy jacket one of these?); his having his supper in the wings while the show goes on; his sojourn at the Waldorf; his claim that New Zealand is the founder of the digital age; and so on and so on. All this excites Evangeline’s imagination. The proof of her devotion is her revelation of what might account for his not showing up: “He meant to shock her, he meant to undo her expectation. . . . The shock of his disappearance was not a negation of the Pact; it was its electrifying fulfillment.”

Why do you think he does break the Pact in the end? Does he lose interest? Is he ashamed of not having lived up to it? Or is it impossible to know?

My guess is that he is as mercurial as his inventions and gets tired of his one remaining acolyte, and moves on to find fresh ones. There may be other reasons: whatever they are, they are sure to be implausible. (Ultimate implausibility characterizes fanaticism.)

The story has an ornithological theme: Nate Vogel, a devoted bird-watcher, has a name that means “bird”; George has orange elbow patches the color of a parrot; he and Evangeline meet on a park bench covered in owl droppings. How did birds become a motif for this story?

Birds, yes, but also other creatures of pedantic interest, including seals and sea lions, and evolutionary wonders such as dinosaurs becoming birds, and hippos deriving from dolphins. All this, as it happens, comes under the rubric of George’s dicta “that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” These apply also to Evangeline’s marriage to Nate Vogel: Why else would a fantasist end up with a dry fact-collector?

Are these characters going to be part of something longer, or do they exist only within the confines of “The Coast of New Zealand”?

Well, Nate Vogel would be acutely uncomfortable anywhere else; he’s content in his prosaic Stamford, Connecticut—his own never-never land of quotidian desire. But Evangeline? She might turn up wherever folly lies.

Earlier this year you published your seventh novel, “Antiquities.” Are you working on another one? Or will you be sticking to shorter forms for the moment?

A story of six thousand words seems exactly the right thing just now. A story of fewer words—one or two thousand, say—yields a momentary epiphany, while a novel rides on wave after wave of a sea. But a long story, neither the one nor the other, can capture the span, and thereby the meaning, of a life.

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“Kevin Can F**K Himself” and “Feel Good” Rethink Relationship Comedy

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On paper, “Kevin Can F**K Himself,” a new meta-series on AMC, is a tempting stylistic cocktail—one part Jekyll, one part Hyde, garnished with a zesty feminist twist. Onscreen, it’s a bizarro centaur with a horse’s head and a man’s hairy ass: the concept is there, but the assembly is all wrong. Annie Murphy plays Allison McRoberts, a standard-issue sitcom wife living a multi-cam sitcom life in Worcester, Massachusetts, with her dopey slob of a husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen). For ten years of marriage, Allison has tolerated Kevin’s antics, which tend to involve guzzling booze, worshipping the Patriots, and evading all adult responsibility, but she’s finally had enough of the long-suffering shtick. She begins to dream of escape—stabbing Kevin in the jugular with a broken beer mug is one happy fantasy—and, as her thoughts turn dark, so, literally, does the show. The corny music drops out, and the bright studio lights dim to a bruised, greenish tinge, as if the camera had been dropped into olive brine. In sunny sitcom land, a laugh track yuks along to plots that revolve around, say, Kevin’s scheme to prank his killjoy boss at his and Allison’s “anniversa-rager.” In the gloomy grit of drama-ville, we watch as Allison Googles “perfect murder” at the public library and tries to finagle an opioid prescription in the hope that she can induce her husband to shuffle off his mortal coil by accidental overdose.

A dark pastiche of network sitcoms that avenges years of sexist sludge pumped into the American psyche by shows such as “Kevin Can Wait” (the callout is so direct that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the show’s creator, Valerie Armstrong, had been challenged to a duel): what’s not to like? The pastiche itself, for one thing. Playing with two genres, you potentially double the reward, but you also risk winding up with a sitcom drained of comedy and a drama stripped of power, not to mention sense. Far be it from me to suggest that Kevin, a lukewarm can of Bud Light in human form, deserves to live, but why opt for murder when divorce entails considerably less jail time? Allison offers up a jumbled grab bag of justifications for her desperate behavior. The truth is that she’s a pawn, not a character, freed from one set of absurd genre constraints only to become shackled to another.

A sitcom’s breezy rhythm is exacting—one missed beat and the whole thing goes splat. Here, the thud is the point. The show’s first episode opens in the McRobertses’ living room, where Kevin is playing beer pong with his doofus neighbor, Neil (Alex Bonifer), as Kevin’s dad (Brian Howe) and Neil’s bullying sister, Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden, doing a Rosie O’Donnell thing), look on from the couch. When Allison enters, carrying a basket of laundry, she disrupts the fratty equilibrium; “Mom,” as Neil calls her, can’t hang. “Neil, what is our one house rule?” she asks, hoping he’ll apologize for the neg. “Yankees suck!” the group shouts in unison. The laugh track roars; Allison is crushed, and the air is briefly sucked from the scene. A sitcom wife wields her humor as both dagger and shield, doing domestic battle with a wink and a smile. But Allison is turned into another stereotype, the tedious, finger-wagging shrew. “Women is losers,” Janis Joplin sang. Honey, don’t I believe it.

Maybe I’m not the right audience for this show, but who is? “Kevin Can F**K Himself” dissects a product that its target viewers likely already hold in contempt. The baseline of condescension is elevated, in the course of the four forty-five-minute episodes that I watched, by the show’s insistence that these working-class people—Kevin is a cable guy, Allison an employee at a liquor store—are not merely obnoxious and stupid but also bad. Kevin wages a war on the couple’s neighbors, “foreigners” whose favorite football team is Manchester United. Patty brags about getting a mailwoman deported. Presumably, we are meant to recoil in horror, not to pause and wonder at the likelihood of an undocumented person being employed by a federal agency in the first place.

Murphy had a big success playing Alexis Rose, the ditzy sister with a heart of gold on “Schitt’s Creek,” a sitcom as sweet as “Kevin Can F**K Himself” is sour. She was nominated for a slew of Canadian Screen Awards, and won an Emmy in 2020. Still, comic actors often worry about proving their prestige, and it’s understandable that Murphy, who can crack up a room with a raised eyebrow, wanted to test herself with steelier stuff. But serious doesn’t have to mean no fun. Saddled with a bad wig of a Boston accent, her shoulders hunched in a posture of perpetual defeat, Murphy seems lost. This is supposed to be Allison’s show. Why does it feel like the joke is on her?

If you want to laugh without the assistance of a track, I suggest you hop on over to Netflix, where the second season of the underappreciated gem “Feel Good” has just been released. The series, which now totals twelve perfectly paced, gloriously funny half-hour episodes, was co-created and written by the Canadian comedian Mae Martin, who based the story on her own life and plays a version of herself.

Mae, an expat in London, is jittery, wiry, and waxy pale, with the sharp features and big eyes of an anime character and a boyish swoosh of cropped blond hair that makes her look like Peter Pan crossed with a baby chick. She’s thirty but, bundled in her oversized hoodie, could pass for a preteen. A macho Dane Cook type she meets at the comedy club where she does standup pegs her as “some sort of androgynous Muppet,” though she prefers “anemic scarecrow.” Strangers call her “sir,” and her girlfriend, George (Charlotte Ritchie), has Mae saved in her phone as “Corn.” (It’s the hair.) “I don’t really identify as a woman these days,” Mae jokes. How does she identify? “More like an Adam Driver or a Ryan Gosling. I’m still, like, working it out.” That deadpan waggishness is typical of the show’s low-key, anti-doctrinaire approach to the big questions of selfhood. “Feel Good” sends up a familiar brand of generational self-righteousness, but gently, with love.

In the first season, Mae and George meet at one of Mae’s sets. An ecstatic sequence has the couple kissing, screwing, and moving in together at the speed of a stop-motion flower unfurling from bud to bloom. The sex is hot, and often hilarious, but the intensity of the attraction papers over the pair’s compatibility issues. George has never dated a woman before, and her reluctance to come out to her snobby friend group eats at Mae’s confidence. Meanwhile, George learns that Mae is a recovering drug addict; when she was a teen, her parents (Adrian Lukis and a wonderfully imperious Lisa Kudrow) kicked her out of the house, and she wound up on the street, then in jail. Mae grudgingly agrees to join a support group, but, by the end of the season, she has relapsed, and the couple splits up.

The current season opens with Mae back at the rehab, outside Toronto, where she spent time in her youth. She has regressed, in more ways than one. Mae is suspicious of the contemporary tendency to classify feelings with a diagnosis. “I forgot that I’m a Vietnam War vet,” she tells a doctor who suggests that she might have P.T.S.D. But she can’t explain why she sometimes needs to lie under the bed rather than on top of it, or why a ten-year period of her life has been wiped from her memory. The show, closing in on Mae’s past, demands that she reckon not only with the harm that has been done to her but with the more confusing question of her own complicity; two confrontations with sketchy dudes, with very different outcomes, are marbled with ambiguity. (Self-styled good guys are in for a tweaking, too. “Here’s a chapter on the link between the male orgasm and war crimes,” George is told by a male lover, who hands her a book called “Feminist Sexuality” after she confesses to a filthy fantasy involving priests and nuns.) Beneath the surface charms of this clever, entertaining series, Martin wants to show us how difficult it is to be a moral person, and how beautiful it is to try. ♦

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The Rise of Black Homeschooling

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Advocates of school choice say that it gives low-income parents access to institutions that can better serve their children. Critics say that it lures highly motivated Black families away from traditional public schools and further hobbles underfunded districts. Presidents Clinton and Obama supported charters, but Democrats have largely cooled on them, and progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed curbing their growth. Michigan’s charters, most of which operate as for-profit companies, have consistently performed worse than the state’s traditional public schools. Yet parents continue to choose charters, which receive a large chunk of the more than eight thousand dollars per student that the state would otherwise send to non-charters, but aren’t subject to the same degree of public oversight. About half of Detroit’s students are now enrolled in charters, one of the highest proportions of any U.S. city.

The Walton foundation set up the National Parents Union in January, 2020, with Rodrigues as the founding president. Rodrigues’s oldest son, who has autism and A.D.H.D., was suspended thirty-six times in kindergarten alone; sometimes he was sent to a sensory-deprivation room that Rodrigues thought resembled a cinder-block cell. Eventually, a school representative suggested a charter school. “I didn’t know what a charter school was,” Rodrigues said. “I didn’t know I had any options. I just thought I had to send him to the closest school. I didn’t know there were fights like this in education. All I knew was ‘Oh, my god, are you kidding me—why are you doing this to my kid?’ ”

The National Parents Union was less than three months old when the pandemic closed schools. As well-off families set up private learning pods, Vela Education Fund gave Rodrigues seven hundred thousand dollars to help people with fewer resources, like Bernita, create their own. “There was an article in the New York Times about fancy white people in upstate New York creating these ‘pandemic pods,’ ” Rodrigues said. “But that’s how poor Black and brown folks survive in America—we resource-share. We don’t call them ‘pandemic pods,’ because that’s a bougie new term. For us, we called it ‘going to Abuelita’s house,’ because she watched all the cousins in the family after school, and that’s where you learned a host of skills outside of the normal school setting.”

Last summer, the nonprofit news organization Chalkbeat, which receives Walton funding, co-sponsored a virtual town hall on reopening Michigan’s public schools. Detroit’s superintendent, Nikolai P. Vitti, said that expanding to “non-traditional” options, such as learning pods, would hurt many of the city’s children. He warned that homeschooling, like charter schools, would undermine public education and cost teachers their jobs. Legislators were already drafting bills, he said, to take money away from schools so that children could continue learning in pods after campuses reopened.

“I don’t judge any parent for using the socioeconomic means that they have to create what they believe is the best educational opportunity for their child,” Vitti said. “We all do that, in our way, as parents. But that is the purpose of traditional public education, to try to be the equalizer, to try to create that equal opportunity.”

Bernita had logged on to the discussion from her kitchen. “Parents are not deciding to take their children out because of COVID,” she told Vitti. “Parents are doing pods because education has failed children in this city forever.”

I asked Kija if it bothered her to accept money from the conservative-libertarian Koch family, who have spent vast sums of their fortune advocating for lower taxes, deep cuts to social services, and looser environmental regulations. “I guess the bigger question is, why don’t we have enough resources so that we don’t have to get money from them? It bothers me, yes—but why do they have so much money that they get to fund all of our shit?” she asked. “I shouldn’t have to get resources from the Kochs.”

Kija and Bernita describe themselves as Democrats. Bernita said that, in another era, she “would be a Black Panther with white friends.” She said that she was “at peace” with her decision to take money from the Koch family, because they fund several of the charter schools that Victoria attended, through their Michigan-based building-supply company Guardian Industries. She is not a “poster child” for her conservative backers, she added—the Koch family has no control over what or how she teaches. In a video about Engaged Detroit produced by Vela Education Fund, Bernita states, “If school won’t reinvent education, we have to reinvent it ourselves, and our goal at Engaged Detroit is to make sure families have the tools so that choice is in their hands.”

Vela Education Fund offered Bernita one year of funding, and in April she accepted another twenty-five-thousand-dollar grant, from Guardian Industries, to sustain her group through the next school year. Rodrigues imagines a scenario in which the per-pupil funding that public-school districts normally receive goes straight to a homeschooling parent. “Instead,” she said, “you have systems that are addicted to that money.”

Celine Coggins, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a collective of more than three hundred philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation, says it’s not clear yet whether funders will continue to invest in homeschooling after the pandemic. Most are in “listening mode,” she said. Andre Perry, an education-policy expert at the centrist Brookings Institution, suspects that conservative-libertarian philanthropists will not prop up homeschooling as they have charters and vouchers, “but they will use this wedge issue to hurt public schools,” he said.

Perry was once the C.E.O. of the Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network, which launched in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but he grew skeptical of the school-choice movement. Its funders tend to put their wealth toward alternatives to the public-school system, Perry told me, rather than lobbying state governments to implement more equitable funding models for public schools or to address the over-representation of Black children in special education. “Because of the pandemic, you’ve had organizations saying, Hey, this is an opportunity to again go after public schools,” Perry said. The Vela-funded homeschooling collectives don’t address root causes of educational disparities, he continued: “When people only focus on the escape hatch, it reveals they’re not interested in improving public education.”

Perry went on, “Slapping ‘Parents Union’ on something while you’re constantly trying to underfund public education—that’s not the kind of trade-off that suggests you’re interested in empowering Black people. It’s more of a sign that you’re trying to advance a conservative agenda against public systems.”

Six months into the pandemic, a consensus had emerged that many children, in all kinds of learning environments, were depressed, disengaged, and lonely in the Zoom simulacrum of school. “It’s Time to Admit It: Remote Education Is a Failure,” a headline stated in the Washington Post. “Remote Learning Is a Bad Joke,” The Atlantic declared. For some homeschoolers who rely heavily on online curricula, an all-screens, alone-in-a-room version of school can have a flattening effect even outside of a global health crisis. Kafele Gray, Kija’s son, who is now twenty-one and studying music business at Durham College, in Ontario, liked online homeschooling because it freed him from bullying. After two years, though, he was failing his classes and procrastinating, with assignments piling up. “It got kind of stressful,” he said. “You have to teach yourself and be on yourself.” He especially struggled with math. “When I’m in school, I’m better at math, because I have the teacher there to explain it to me—I’m seeing it broken down. When I was online, I would get it wrong, but I wouldn’t know why.” Still, when Kafele returned to his charter school, in eleventh grade, he’d learned to push himself to figure things out on his own. “School was less challenging” than it had been two years earlier, he told me. “I started getting A’s and B’s again.”

When the fall semester started, Bernita and Victoria tried to replicate the course load Victoria would have undertaken in a normal year. Bernita searched for online chemistry and trigonometry classes, and Victoria decided to take dance at the charter high school she’d attended before the pandemic. Bernita wanted the Engaged Detroit families to learn about Black history, so she signed them up for a six-week virtual course with the Detroit historian Jamal Jordan. Victoria bought pink notebooks and pens and a chalkboard for writing out the weekly schedule, and Bernita set up a desk for her daughter in the den. Though Bernita spent many hours on Zoom for her consulting work, the family ate lunch together most days.

As the semester continued, Victoria faded. She stayed up until seven in the morning and slept until two every afternoon, and she stopped doing chemistry. In October, Bernita told her that she couldn’t go on a planned post-pandemic trip to Los Angeles. Later that week, during her weekly coaching session with Kija, Bernita bragged about disciplining Victoria. Kija asked her to reconsider: teen-agers like sleeping in, and homeschooling allows kids to follow their natural rhythms. Besides, Kija said, Black kids are disciplined more than enough. Rather than punish Victoria, Kija suggested, Bernita should ask her daughter what she wanted to study.

The advice worked: Victoria replaced chemistry with a forensic-science class that met the state science requirements for graduation. She pored over lessons about evidence and crime scenes for hours at a time. By spring, she was waking up early to study for the core classes she needed to pass. One cold, sunny Wednesday, wearing a sweatshirt that read “Look Momma I’m Soaring,” Victoria sat down to puzzle out the trigonometry lessons that had always confused her. She emptied a pail of highlighters onto the table. At her high school, teachers hadn’t let her write in different colors, and she couldn’t make sense of her monochromatic notes. She opened a Khan Academy lesson on side ratios, and as the instructor explained the formulas for finding cosine and tangent Victoria drew triangles, highlighting each side with a different color.

The lesson included a nine-minute video and several practice questions. Every time Victoria attempted to find the cosine of the specified angle, she got the wrong answer. In a regular class, she would have pretended to understand. At home, she paused the video, rewound it, and flipped back through her notes. Eventually, she realized that she didn’t know which side was the hypotenuse. She Googled the word.

“The longest side of a right triangle,” she read. “Oh.”

She tried the formula for sine—opposite over hypotenuse—and this time a green check mark of victory flashed on her screen. Victoria solved for the angle’s tangent, and when she got it right she smiled. “O.K., I’m smart,” she said.

The parents of Engaged Detroit meet on Zoom every other Monday night. One evening in mid-March, Bernita set her laptop on the kitchen table next to a plate of broccoli and mashed potatoes. A dozen squares popped up on her screen, showing kitchens and living rooms from across the city. The parents updated one another on their children’s progress. Two preteens had started a jewelry-making business. An elementary-age boy with a stutter was relieved to be learning at home with his mom. Victoria watched for a minute, then went upstairs to feed her guinea pig, Giselle.

“You’ve been in child’s pose for almost three weeks. Just checking that everything’s O.K. . . .”
Cartoon by Becky Barnicoat

A mother, Jeanetta Riley, recounted how, at the beginning of lockdown, she had discovered that her daughter, Skye, a freshman in high school, was performing two grades behind in math. After she joined Bernita’s group, she found a tutor, and now, using Khan Academy, Skye had caught up to her grade level.

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