The Battle for Venezuela's Universities

In recent months, the introduction of a new higher education law in Venezuela has sparked a number of demonstrations against President Hugo Chavez’s government by rectors and students from the national autonomous universities, who claim the new law interferes with university autonomy.

By Kiraz Janicke - Green Left Weekly
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In recent months, the introduction of a new higher education law in Venezuela has sparked a number of demonstrations against President Hugo Chavez’s government by rectors and students from the national autonomous universities, who claim the new law interferes with university autonomy.

The new law is aimed not only at increasing university access for the poor, but also at opening the books of the autonomous universities to make them account for where they spend government funds. Part of the law requires universities to declare exactly who is on the payroll, aiming to tackle the type of corruption endemic within the autonomous universities, such as the University of Carabobo (UC).

The July 1 edition of Ultima Noticias reported that although UC only has eight deans, one secretary and two vice-rectors, when the university presented its application for government funding it listed 65 deans, five secretaries and 25 vice-rectors, including the mayor of Naguanagua. Under the new law these extra claims for payment were rejected. According to the minister for higher education, Samuel Moncada, who was quoted in the same article, over US$20 million previously lost through corruption has been recouped from the autonomous universities through this process.

When the law was first introduced in March, more than 5000 students demonstrated in support. However since then, the universities have been able to mobilise many students behind the banners of the opposition and against the government. As the July 22 editorial of Diario VEA raised, why, when the people are in the frontline of the process of change that is shaking Venezuela, do the universities remain under the hold of the old politics? The fact is, in revolutionary Venezuela, the autonomous universities have become a bastion of the ultra-right.

Historically, Venezuela has experienced arguably the most intense student struggle in Latin America, centred around the university town of Merida. In the 1960s and ’70s, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, many left-wing groups went underground to carry out guerrilla struggle against the regime. Many of these same groups established above-ground organisations on university campuses across Venezuela. During this period, many activists moved into academia and a current of left-wing thought began to permeate throughout the universities, out of which grew a large and powerful student movement for a period of nearly 20 years.

The government’s response to the upsurge of student struggle in the 1970s and ’80s was waves of assassinations and repression of student activists. A mural at the University Los Andes in Merida depicts the faces of past student leaders who have been assassinated, quoting one of the most famous — Domingo Salazar — who was assassinated in 1979: “They say we are the future, yet they kill us in the present.”

Throughout the 1980s, a number of social explosions erupted onto the streets of Merida. Often, the military would be brought out onto the streets and students were forced to retreat back onto campus (the military and the police are not allowed to enter the autonomous universities).

Yet, by the time of Chavez’s election to the presidency in 1998, the militancy and vanguard role of the students had dissipated. Universities had progressively moved to restrict access, and participation rates for the poor in the autonomous universities dropped to below 7%. The university bureaucracy, which for decades had been making huge profits through corruption and embezzlement, was not prepared to lose its position of privilege.

Under previous governments, many of the right-wing students took up positions in the traditional parties or in the government bureaucracy. The rise of the Bolivarian forces meant that many of these spaces of privilege were closed off for the right. The autonomous universities became more and more a refuge of the opposition. Instead of leaving university, many stayed on as academics or in the administrations, shifting the general ideological discussion and politics of the universities to the right.

On top of all this, the student movement was disorientated, divided and unsure of what role to play in relation to a government that supported many of its demands.

To challenge the problem of exclusion in the autonomous universities, the Chavez government set up Mission Sucre, which acted as a gateway to university for many who previously could not afford to go.

The government, realising the difficulties of directly confronting the university administrations and the necessity to move forward on improving the education system, established the Bolivarian Universities, which have allowed greater access to education as well as giving students and the community more of a say over educational content.

According to Ulises Puche, a law graduate and veteran student leader, who lost sight in one eye during struggle, Mission Sucre and the establishment of the Bolivarian Universities are not the solution.

“The problem is that the [autonomous] universities are dominated by the ultra-right. The challenge, in the words of Che, is to paint the universities the colour of the people.” Puche argued that the key task of the student movement in Venezuela is not only to regain control of the universities, but to also transform them.

The pro-revolution student organisations still have a way to go in developing a real mass student movement capable of achieving this aim. This sentiment was shared by many at the National Encounter of Revolutionary Students for the Construction of Socialism in the 21st Century, held in Merida on July 20-23. Students spoke of the problems they faced, with most of the student unions in the hands of the opposition. They noted that while many students had played a crucial and important role in the running of the missions and working within the community, it was necessary for students to take up the fight on their universities.

They also talked of the need for greater unity within the pro-revolution camp. While the Federation of Bolivarian Students, set up on the initiative of Chavez, initially had the support of most pro-revolution organisations, three years later problems with the selected leadership and lack of connection with the grassroots has led many to call for a new revolutionary federation. It is towards this aim, as well as setting out a clear project for these organisations, that another student conference has tentatively been called for later this year.

Kiraz Janicke is a member of Resistance and was a participant in the first Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Brigade.

From Green Left Weekly, September 14, 2005.