Student housing, always in short supply, has been a longstanding demand voiced by Venezuelan students. The Bolivarian Process sought to redress this problem, in part through the Livia Gouverneur Student Residences (RELG), a housing complex for low-income students and those from rural Venezuela with no place to live in Caracas. RELG was a grassroots initiative that received Chavez’s support in 2011 and was inaugurated in 2013. Nevertheless, in the early hours of July 25, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the RELG students were forcefully evicted, leaving many homeless. Here we talk with Tamayba Lara, one of the students who initiated the project, about these events and about the strengths and weaknesses of the Chavista student movement.
You are one of the founders of the Livia Gouverneur Student Residence. What can you tell us about this initiative and the vision that underpinned it?
The student residences project was an initiative promoted in 2010 by the Central University’s revolutionary student movement together with the Caracas Mayor’s Office. The project would later be joined by UBV, UNEARTE, and UNEFA students, which are all universities created by the Bolivarian Revolution.
At the core of the project was a long student struggle. The sons and daughters of the working class from tiny towns to large cities around the country had long demanded housing facilities that would allow them to study in the capital.
The struggle gave birth to a new organization, which in turn led us to question the education model while thinking about democracy, productive work, and the commitment to the construction of a new, socialist society. These reflections brought us to understand the importance of combining work and study while putting knowledge at the service of the pueblo’s needs. In other words, the process of organization and reflection brought us to understand that our struggle was not for a temporary solution to the housing problem, but for a dignified, productive, and sustainable living option for students.
The struggle was organized through the creation of university brigades and strategically-oriented commissions, all under the umbrella of “The Manifesto of the Student Residency Brigades” [a document stating the RELG principles].
The process also brought the student movement closer to sister organizations in the Chavista popular movement, including the Movimiento de Inquilinas. They, in turn, invited us to participate in the writing of the progressive “Leasing Law”  which was the first law ever proposed and drafted by the revolution’s bases. In fact, we collectively drafted the chapter about student housing and this became, subsequently, key for President Chavez’s approval of what would become the RELG, doing so with the slogan “to lead by obeying” [mandar obedeciendo].
Just three weeks ago, a conflict emerged over the student residences between two Chavista blocs. A group aligned with the PSUV youth attempted to displace the students from the RELG. They alleged that in the name of “solidarity” during the health emergency, COVID-19 positive people should be installed there.
Yet the students living in the residences, together with the Chavista popular movement, resisted. Hence, there was popular Chavismo, with its rebelliousness and disposition to struggle, confronting institutional Chavismo, with its media and police muscle. The popular movement lost that battle, and the students were evicted. You were there on the frontlines – tell us about it.
I should first mention that both the popular movement that mobilized in solidarity with the students and the students themselves are aware of the health crisis that we are facing. We experience the consequences of this situation first hand in terms of the health of our loved ones and the harsh economic implications that the pandemic has for workers in a country that faces a brutal US-led blockade.
Additionally, I approve of the measures that the Bolivarian government has taken to protect the life of the Venezuelan people in the context of the global pandemic… However, the pandemic is precisely one of the many reasons why the forced eviction of the students from the residences is wrong: it casts a shadow over the laudable efforts made in this area and reduces credibility.
To contextualize the situation a bit, the RELG has capacity for 400 students. The majority of the residents had gone back to their homes when the lockdown began, but 92 students stayed in the residencies for various reasons: some have no other home to go to; others come from rural areas and are working in Caracas while they study; some need internet access, which isn’t available in other parts of the country.
On Monday, July 20, Rodbexa Poleo, the official representative of the JPSUV [PSUV’s youth organization], and a commission of state officials went to the RELG to inform the students that in three days they had to vacate the residence, since it would be converted into a field hospital for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients, adding that those who opposed the measure would be considered “bio-terrorists.” The words and the attitude sparked outrage and triggered the desire to defend the space. The students went on to denounce this situation through social media and summoned members of the popular movement to try to stop the eviction. Following the mobilization on social media, we initiated a working group, where those affected presented their position.
The following day, government representatives went back to the RELG, announcing that the eviction would happen regardless. The government did not take into account the overall situation, which included, as the students advised during the meetings, the need to set up field hospitals in vacant hotels, empty buildings, and public institutions that are empty due to quarantine, rather than displacing people.
Additionally, should the eviction happen, the students demanded a commitment from the authorities to restore the use of the building for public student residences after the pandemic; enough time to move (or store) the belongings of the 92 students present at the time and the 308 who had gone home, and recognizing the RELG Advisory Council as a body that would jointly manage the space. That same day the authorities proceeded to carry out rapid COVID-19 tests, resulting in six “positive” cases. These students were transferred to a hotel for asymptomatic patients.
Right before midnight on Friday, July 24, public officials accompanied by medical personnel entered the residences to carry out further COVID-19 testing, arguing that four of those who had tested positive on the quick test had tested positive on the PCR test. During the early hours of July 24, 15 students tested “positive” and were taken away to hotels for asymptomatic patients.
How did you become involved and ultimately arrested?
After the testing, the remaining students were “invited” to vacate the building. They refused to do so and denounced the forced eviction attempt on social media. Around 4 a.m. some members of the popular movement and I went to the residences to mediate with the police, who clearly intended to break into the building to forcibly evict the students. Our arguments were not listened to, and the police carried out the order opening the doors by force. When that happened, we began to chant what the students were chanting from their balconies: “Chavez gave it to us, nobody can take it from us!” and “Chavez lives on in the struggle!”
After our attempt to mediate and impede the illegal and forced eviction, the police proceeded to arrest us. In the process, the police beat us. Subsequently, we were locked in the National Bolivarian Police station in El Recreo [Caracas]. In the meantime, students were evicted and transferred to hotels for asymptomatic patients. Many lost valuable things, and all were exposed to risk by placing them in hotels with COVID-19 patients.
Our imprisonment triggered a large popular mobilization, and we were eventually released. After that, the students and those of us who had resisted the eviction were summoned to a meeting with Caracas’ mayor [Erika Farias] and the Youth Minister [Pedro Infante]. In that meeting, we explained the events, including the abuse suffered by both students and ourselves, while the evicted students demanded that the government offer them swift solutions to the situation of homelessness that they were facing.
As we speak, more than two weeks after the eviction, 15 of the 92 students are housed in the National Institute of Sports, 27 are hosted in vulnerable conditions at friends’ homes, 27 are in the hotels for asymptomatic patients. Of those, nine are waiting for assistance with travel to their hometowns, and 12 are waiting for relocation until the residence is restored for its original use. The latter have not received institutional attention.
The eviction might be seen as a mere defeat of the popular movement. However, when you were released after twelve hours of police detention, you said something important: every process has internal contradictions, and it is precisely in the recognition and overcoming of these contradictions that we will build the new society. Can you expand here on your idea?
Reality itself is contradictory. Reality is in a permanent process of change, and change is in itself a contradiction because things are, and at the same time, they are ceasing to be what they were. Everything is in motion, and the movement is contradictory since things are in one place and, at the same time, in another place as they move. The Bolivarian Process is part of this changing reality. It is a process that, through its history, has faced many crises and contradictions, and the contradictions have led to moments of definition.
Throughout the Bolivarian Process, we have used contradictory methods: both liberal, representative democracy and participatory-protagonist democracy, to give you one example. Also, both the strategy from above and the strategy from below – that is, recognizing the role of the president in the custody of national sovereignty from above, on the one hand, and, on the other, promoting organizational practices for participation from below.
However, the coexistence of two contradictory models for democracy in a process of popular empowerment is complex. Power is now exercised by the people and that, in turn, is power that representatives cease to exercise. This entails the representative’s self-annulment as a subject with power. The representative must transfer it to “original power” [poder originario], constituent power, the power of resistance: the non-state, the non-government, the non-party. This leads to a great paradox: who is it that, possessing power, will be willing to abandon it so that popular power can be exercised?
The Venezuelan popular movement and all of the state officials who recognize this contradiction must confront it. They must overcome it in a revolutionary manner so that the new can be born.
Something similar happens with the errors and deviations of the process: when a state representative or a government policy goes against the collective interests, the militant or the popular movement has no option but to confront them. In other words, we have no option but to address the contradiction, denounce it, expose the ideas, and resist. Life itself depends on that.
Mind you, I’m not talking about sitting around a table to speak badly of this or that government official. No, I’m talking about fighting, defending things on a local level, our bodies, our food sources, etc. If the decision of a state official threatens life, work, dignity, or happiness, then the community has no other option but to defend its life, its work, its dignity, and its happiness.
In other words, the community cannot remain silent or applaud an action that is contrary to the interests of the pueblo and the revolution. Instead, we need to assume the contradiction and struggle for life, for the new to be born, for popular power to emerge.
You have reflected self-critically on the student and youth movement. That movement is committed to Chavez’s legacy, but has often been demobilized, paralyzed and, in some cases, bureaucratized. Could you tell us more about your analysis of the student movement?
In the Bolivarian Process the tasks of government have demanded that many cadres take on roles in the state. The revolutionary student movement, in particular, became an essential tool for technical cadres. Nonetheless, this dynamic of recruitment ended up weakening the student movement as a social movement. That is not to say that there aren’t student organizations doing good work in universities, but these organizations have been weakened in the face of institutional logics and agendas.
Additionally, the economic situation and the government’s incorrect approach to economic issues have adversely affected the people, which, in turn, has hit popular organizations hard. The difficulties that the pueblo faces when it comes to the material reproduction of life compounded by their dissatisfaction with politics has pulled many away from activism.
In other words, the key factors that weakened the student movement are bureaucratization, objective difficulties in daily life, and alienation from politics. All this expressed itself in the RELG struggle. The student organization was not robust enough to win this battle. This means that revolutionaries should commit themselves to accompany all organizational processes, recognizing their potential, strengthening them, and bringing them closer to the popular movement as a whole.
You were with Chavez in November 2011, when he approved the RELG project. On that occasion, he made a critical reflection on democracy. He said, “We must govern by obeying.” His idea was that by supporting the residences, he was complying with a demand of the people (the student movement in this case). He then contrasted socialist democracy – which obeys the interests of the people – with liberal democracy – which follows the interests of capital. Is Chavez’s mandate being fulfilled these days?
The premise of governing by obeying is central to Chavez’s conception of politics, and that expressed itself in the endorsement of participatory and protagonist democracy in the Venezuelan constitution. It is about resignifying democracy and placing power where it originates, in the pueblo, while government officials are made mere delegates, with a merely instrumental role. They must obey the popular will.
Nonetheless, as I said before, there is a built-in contradiction here. A person who has a government responsibility will only be obedient to popular will if he or she understands (and accepts) that the pueblo is where power is to be located.
That is not going to happen spontaneously. It is only through popular organization that established power can be made to focus on the collective problems in our society. It’s about organized communities affirming life, and in so doing, making power their own – not to subdue the other, but to seek the common good. This is about self-management, about communities building power to promote life. This is the task of the popular movement in general, and the very life of the revolution is at stake.
In his “Strike at the Helm” speech , Chavez quoted the following from [Hungarian philosopher Istvan] Meszaros: “The measurement reference when it comes to socialist achievements should be the following: to what degree do the adopted policies actively contribute to the constitution and consolidation – in a substantially democratic way – of social control and general self-management.”
Unfortunately, what happened in the RELG a few weeks ago was a use of power that has nothing to do with this idea. Power was exercised not by obeying the student community. Instead, alienated power, divorced from popular aspirations, was used to forcefully evict the students.