"The church, through its top most hierarchy, intends to obtain supra-constitutional privileges and openly ignore the secular character of the Venezuelan state.” Hugo Chávez, July 18, 2010.
It is (once again) time to open the debate about government policy for university education, to evaluate the creation of so many new universities and what kind of policies they follow.
What is happening in the university sector is concerning. The last two new universities founded (the International University of Communications and, above all, the Evangelical Theological University (1)) have set off alarm bells.
We need to go beyond the official announcements to address the issue of the connection between politics, religion and the state, [taking as a reference point the announcement that the President of the Republic, Nicolas Maduro, approved the creation of the Evangelical Theological University of Venezuela on Thursday, December 5].
With regard to Maduro’s decision, announced in a meeting with representatives of evangelical churches of Venezuela, there are several hypotheses that only those who lead the Venezuelan revolutionary process can clarify. Is this a strategy aimed at co-opting religious sectors to prevent a repeat of what happened in Bolivia or Brazil, where these groups were used as a battering ram against progressive governments?
Politics and religion in Venezuela
Let us not forget that political use of religious groups is common in Venezuela. This can be seen in the [anti-government] hierarchy of the Venezuelan Catholic Church, grouped in the Episcopal Conference of Venezuela, and religious images and events which have been used for mass emotional propaganda against the Chavista process.
We should recall the use of the image of the Virgin Mary in Caracas’ Plaza Altamira in 2002 [during the coup d’etat] and the use of the procession of the Divine Pastora in Barquisimeto [in 2017], both of which contained verbal and physical violence against Chavista leaders. Likewise, let us not forget the incendiary discourses in the preaching of the right wing Venezuelan Catholic bishops.
In Venezuela, political parties directly linked to religious groups have emerged throughout our history. Examples include the Social Christian COPEI party during the Fourth Republic, more recently the ORA party founded in 1987 which currently supports the government, the NUVIPA party which participated in the 2013 elections, and the [Evangelical] Hope for Change party of former presidential candidate Javier Bertucci which was created in 2018 [and won over 1 million votes (10 percent) in the May 2018 presidential elections].
However, it is highly inflammatory to incorporate the religious issue into state or government decisions.
There are multiple experiences of this, most of them negative and against our people. Here, we do not pretend to have a dogmatic-Marxist view of religion using Marx's famous phrase: "Religion is the opium of the people,” since in Latin America there have been important [progressive] religious movements, such as Liberation Theology, which had an important influence, especially in the 70s and 80s.
Equally, figures such as Camilo Torres (Colombia), Leonardo Boff and Helder Cámara (Brazil), or Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua) Arnulfo Romero (El Salvador) have had the people’s interests at heart. There have also been [progressive] priests in Venezuela such as Father Francisco Wuytack, Luis María Olaso, Numa Molina, Adolfo Rojas, Father Freitez in Barquisimeto and so many others.
Education and religion in Venezuela
In our country, religion has had a strong influence on education, both in the public and private sectors (although, according to the Constitution, all education is public).
From primary school, as well as in high school and even at university level, there are hundreds of educational institutions directly linked to Catholicism. In primary and secondary school they are brought together under the auspices of the Venezuelan Catholic Education Association (AVEC), but there are also private schools linked to the Protestant-Evangelical sector.
In the university subsystem there are institutions such as the [private Caracas based] Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) and Santa Rosa de Lima University. The creation of both was approved years ago by the National Council of Universities following the  Law on Universities, which sets out the procedures to establish private universities.
In article 10 of this law, it also refers to the creation of new public universities.
In accordance with the provisions of the Education Law, the National Executive, hearing the opinion of the National Council of Universities, may create National Experimental Universities in order to offer new guidelines and structures in Higher Education. These universities will enjoy autonomy within the special conditions required by educational experimentation. Their organisation and operation will be established by executive regulation and will be the subject of periodic evaluation in order to take advantage of the beneficial results for the renewal of the system and determine the continuation, modification or suppression of their status.
Concerning private universities, article 173 states:
The National Executive, after the favourable opinion of the National Council of Universities, may authorise, by decree and in each case, the operation of universities founded by natural or legal persons of a private nature.
While in article 183, it reads:
The state shall carry out the inspection of private universities in the manner provided for by the National Executive, which may revoke the authorisation of any Private University, or suspend its operation or that of any of its units when in it does not comply with the relevant laws or regulations.
It is also important to remember what the Education Law establishes the secular character of educational matters in article 7, [which] preserves its independence from all religious currents and organisations.
The state shall maintain its secular nature in educational matters in all circumstances, preserving its independence from all religious currents and organisms. The right and responsibility for religious education of children lies with the families, according to their convictions and in accordance with religious freedom, provided for in the Constitution of the Republic."
Additional questions have to be posed about this new [Evangelical] university:
1. - Will it be a public university, that is, with state funding, or will it be private?
2. - What courses will be offered?
3. - Will Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or Jehovah's Witnesses students be able to enter equally?
4. - Who will appoint the university authorities? Will it be the government, or religious sectors of the Evangelical Church?
5. - Will it be a matter of discussion which will require the approval of the National Council of Universities?
6. - How is the new university linked to the Homeland Plan, or with the government’s development plans?
The secularity of the state has historically been a barrier for public spaces to be decontaminated from the horrors of religious wars, from the infiltrations of confessionalism into institutional life, from the fanaticism of crowds.
He also said:
In the midst of this epochal transit, everything is mixed with everything, everything is worth the same (or almost), politics and religion intersect dangerously. My thesis is that in this widespread confusion, the loser is the political sphere. The return of religious rituals to public affairs is a cultural degradation that is slashing away centuries of accumulation of democratic practices founded on the secularity of the state. Nothing justifies such a reactionary drift, especially when it comes with the complicity of a progressive government that should be vigorously bound by a certain decency of politics... The secular state is non-negotiable... The secular state is a conquest of modernity... but its reactionary drift is intensified in what is a collapse of almost everything.
During this debate, a fellow comrade and professor said the following on social media about this thorny subject:
I have to say this simply: this has cornered critical, secular, and anticolonial thinking. As we make some effort to understand the colonialist fabrics that keep our people oppressed and seek to break from them, with conquests and important steps as subscribed in Magna Carta, we wake to hear these retrograde and unjustified measures.
In conclusion, the debate is still open...
(1) President Nicolas Maduro announced the launch of two new universities within 72 hours earlier this month. During the International Communications Congress held in Caracas, he announced plans to constitute the International University of Communications, which is due to open its doors during the first trimester of 2020. Following that, he created the Venezuelan Evangelical University during a government activity with religious leaders. Few details were offered by the President.
Cecil Gerardo Pérez is a Venezuelan sociologist with a doctorate in Social Sciences and columnist at progressive news outlet Aporrea. He is currently a professor at the Lisandro Alvarado Central-west University in Barquisimeto.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.