Venezuela’s Resurgent Revolutionary Student Movement

The latest round of opposition mobilizations, the ostensibly “spontaneous” student mobilizations in defense of private television station RCTV, have once again for the opposition inadvertently produced an undesired result - the revitalization of Venezuela’s revolutionary student movement

The old adage about the whip of the counter-revolution driving forward the revolution has certainly played out in Venezuela over the past few years, with each major offensive of the opposition being met with even greater levels of organization and consciousness of the vast majority of Venezuelans who support President Hugo Chavez and the project of “Socialism in the 21st Century.” In April 2002 the combined force of popular mobilizations and rank and file soldiers loyal to Chavez defeated a US-backed coup by officers who suddenly found themselves with no army to lead. Then, the oil industry lockout, which began in December of that year and continuing into February of 2003, almost crippled the Venezuelan economy and, in the words of Nora Casteneda (President of the Women’s Bank), “woke up the industrial working class, which until that moment had been sleeping.” In the face of strikes and sabotage by PDVSA’s bloated management, lower level oil workers together with soldiers got the state owned oil company up and running again. The third major offensive of the opposition – the recall referendum on Chavez’s presidency in August 2004 also met with resounding defeat as a result of increased levels of popular mobilization in support of Chavez. The subsequent decision of the opposition to boycott the National Assembly elections in 2005, in an orchestrated attempt to discredit the government also backfired, leaving them in a much weaker position to contest the presidential elections in 2006, producing Chavez biggest electoral victory yet, with over 7.3 million votes and the highest participation rate ever in Venezuela’s history.

Similarly, the latest round of opposition mobilizations, the ostensibly “spontaneous”[i] student mobilizations in defense of private television station RCTV (whose license to broadcast on the public spectrum was not renewed on May 27 after the company was charged with violating Venezuelan media laws), have once again for the opposition inadvertently produced an undesired result – the revitalization of Venezuela’s revolutionary student movement.

History of the Student Movement

Venezuela’s revolutionary student movement, which consists of a myriad of different organizations and collectives, is perhaps one of the weakest and most dispersed sectors of the Bolivarian revolution. In 2005 rightwing university authorities managed to mobilize students under the banner of “university autonomy” against the introduction of a new higher education law aimed at increasing university access for the poor and opening the books of the notoriously corrupt traditional universities to make them account for the spending of government funds. These mobilizations, like the recent mobilizations in defense of RCTV prompted many on the left to ask why, when society as a whole was moving forward, did the universities remain under the grip of the old politics?

A brief look at the history of the student movement in Venezuela reveals one of the largest and most militant student movements in Latin America throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, many leftwing groups went underground to carry out guerilla struggle against the Punto Fijo regime.[ii] Many of these same groups established their aboveground organizations or “political wing” on university campuses across Venezuela. As a result, many activists moved into academia and a current of left-wing thought began to permeate throughout the universities, generating a powerful student movement for a period of almost twenty years.

The general response of the Punto Fijo governments was to carry out waves of repression. Many times universities were shut down and student leaders assassinated. Almost every day the Venezuelan daily Diario VEA carries an article on its history page commemorating the lives of student and trade union activists murdered by the Punto Fijo regime. A mural at the University Los Andes, Merida quotes 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.” This repression continued well into the 1980s with the Cantaura massacre of members of Bandera Roja in 1982, in which 23 people were killed and the Yumare massacre of another left wing student group in 1986.

As Jeyson Guzman, current president of the Central University Federation at the ULA Merida explained, “Previously, when we had rightwing governments in our country, university autonomy was violated many times; many times the National Guard and other repressive forces entered our houses of study, including massacring students. These governments were supposedly democratic, but were repressive; the student leaders were persecuted and massacred.”[iii]

Rafael Caldera, president of Venezuela from 1993 until Chavez’s victory in 1998 and one of the founders of COPEI is also remembered as the president that during his first term sent “tanks of war into the Central University of Venezuela” in 1970, shutting it down for a period of one year.[iv] 

Militant student mobilizations continued throughout the 1980s, with students playing an important role in the anti-neoliberal rebellion known as the Caracazo in February 1989. However, as Professor Miguel Angel Hernandez, a sociologist at the UCV explains, the student movement suffered a number of severe defeats during this period, such as the introduction of university fees and more stringent entrance requirements.[v] The impact of the economic crisis in the late 1980s and the implementation of neoliberal reforms produced changes in the social composition of the student population. Universities, which had previously allowed more or less unrestricted access to the children of the working class, became more elite and less democratic institutions and by the mid-1990s participation rates of the poor dropped to below 7%.

Although sections of the student movement were also co-participants in the civil-military rebellion led by Chavez in 1992 (many of these student leaders are now playing important roles in the current government), by the time of Chavez’s election to the presidency in 1998, the militancy and vanguard role of the students had dissipated.

Student activist Héctor Ruiz, in an article, “The Student Councils: tools for daily transformation,” maintains that from the early 1990s, the traditional student organizations “began to die, to separate themselves from the national reality,” reflecting the “extreme divergence on the part of a generation that became completely divorced from popular struggle.”[vi]

Ruiz describes the average Venezuelan university student of the late 1990s as being “strongly influenced by the dominant culture” and as possessing “serious intentions of appearing like a student in any cheap US sit-com.”

According to Ruiz, the student organizations in this period and the few years subsequent to the election of Chavez in 1998 were dominated by a pseudo-left and generally characterized by inefficient and bureaucratic management, which he argues, alienated students and paved the way for the rightwing to regain control of these spaces.

The political repercussions of these changes in the social composition of the student population in the autonomous universities are still being felt today in the current political conjuncture. As Hernández points out, the particular social background of the students “who have mobilized against the government and against the revolutionary process in the past few years” is indicated by the fact that there are “no great struggles” in the autonomous universities to improve student services – the traditional rallying cry of students the world over.[vii]

The other key factor, which explains why the traditional universities have become a bastion of the ultra-right wing in Venezuela, is the rise of the Bolivarian forces within the institutions of government and state, closing off many of these spaces which were previously occupied by the right, forcing them to retreat into the universities.[viii] As a consequence, there has been a general shift in the ideological and political debate within the universities to the right.

A strategic reorientation of the student movement.

Despite various attempts to combat the disarticulation of the student sector in the traditional autonomous and private universities, such as the formation of the Federation of Bolivarian Students in 2002, the general approach of the Chavez government has been to avoid direct confrontation with this sector and focus instead on the construction of a parallel education system, through the social missions and the "municipalization" of the free Bolivarian universities.[ix]

The extremely significant and impressive achievements of this strategy notwithstanding, a certain weakness was exposed by the rightwing student mobilizations in defense of RCTV revealing the autonomous universities to be a breeding ground for the counter-revolution. In response there has been a strategic reorientation, aimed at directly confronting this challenge in the autonomous universities. While the valorization of the parallel education system remains a central part of the strategy, the key thrust of this reorientation is to unite the revolutionary student forces in both the traditional autonomous and non-autonomous universities and create a conscious, mobilized university constituency, a constituency of student popular power that intersects with broader popular sectors of the organized communities.

In order to facilitate this shift in strategy Chavez convoked the presidential Commission of Student Popular Power (CPPE), composed of the ten pro-revolution students who spoke in the National Assembly debate on RCTV; Libertad Velasco, Robert Serra, Yahir Muñoz, Osly Hernández, Mayerlin Arias, César Trompiz, Héctor Rodríguez, Andreina Tarazón, Manuel Dun and Eder Dugarte, along with the Ministers for Education, Adán Chávez; for Higher Education, Luis Acuña; for Participation and Social Development, David Velásquez; the Rector of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, Yadira Córdova, and Professor Luis Gallardo.

From June 25 – July 12 members of the CPPE carried out a national tour, convoking student and community assemblies to debate two fundamental themes; the kind of universities we need and student popular power. Trompiz explained the connection of the CPPE to Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms, “When Chavez spoke of the reforms he was proposing the incorporation of another public power – Popular Power – that incorporates popular power of the different sectors, of workers popular power, campesinos, indigenous sectors.” Student popular power fits within this framework.

The CPPE has been, “constructing a process of participation of the Venezuelan students, activating promoters that are activating discussions in the different academic spaces, in different political spaces,” he continued.

Guzman added, “The role of the presidential commission is precisely to unite all the different organizations, all the organizations of the bases, to unify the diversity of the student movement. For this the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela] will also be a very important.”

Robert Serra, a law student at the Andrés Bello Catholic University gave an appraisal of the work of the CPPE so far: “It is important to stress that in the first round we have created more than a thousand volunteers [as promoters for student popular power]. Two months ago we were 10 compañeros in the National Assembly. Today we are more than a thousand [promoters] across the country.”[x]

The other product of this national process of collective discussion and promotion of student popular power was a document, “From the education that we have, to the education we want and need,which provided “a diagnosis of the education system we have, the system that we need to construct, and the organizational forms needed to achieve this.”[xi]

This document was presented at the National Encounter of Promoters of Student Popular Power organized by the CPPE from 15-17 of August, convoked to discuss the transformation of the Organic Law of Education and the Law of Higher Education.

Trompiz elaborated on the significance of the National Encounter of Promoters of Student Popular Power, “At the congress last week 2,500 compañeros met from diverse political spaces, of these 1,300 were promoters for student popular power and 1,200 came from diverse student organizations around the country.”

The congress was “a space to advance, state by state, region by region, the construction of student power, how to construct popular universities, how to construct a student tendency that does not see us as different to the people, we are part of the people and we struggle with the people,” he clarified.

“The other impact it had was that 2,500 people took up the flag of the constitutional reform to guarantee student popular power. We are committed to the defense of the constitution, to the defense of this reform as a space to advance the construction of a historic front of Bolivarian revolutionary students.”

Other proposals from the conference include; the creation of the Simon Rodriguez School of Socio-political Formation, the recognition of the Bolivarian University of Workers, the elimination of the asymmetrical vote in universities, where for example elections for university bodies in the UCV a single staff vote is worth 10 student votes, and the creation of a constituent assembly in the education sector.

“The education that we have”

Just as the rightwing mobilizations in defense of RCTV under the supposed banner of “freedom of expression” (but in reality in defense of the rights of capital) led many Venezuelans to question the validity of these students’ claims and motivations, the protests calling for “university autonomy” led many to question the nature of the traditional university model in Venezuela. Contrary to the often brutal and repressive violations of university autonomy carried out by the Punto Fijo regime in the past, (outlined above), the so-called “violations” of university autonomy by the Chavez government today (vehemently opposed by the notoriously corrupt university bureaucracies), consist of measures to increase university access for the poor through regulation of entrance procedures, the application of quotas to ensure adequate national development in areas such as health and education, and measures to open the books and make universities account for the spending of government funds. As Guzman pointed out, “The right wing uses the banner of ‘autonomy’ to implement the capitalist model in the education system. Their autonomy is not in defense of freedom of thought.”

The autonomy that the rightwing speaks of today, added Trompiz, “is the child of tanks of war [that Caldera sent into the UCV], the child of transnational capital, the child of neoliberalism, the child of the sequestering of knowledge [through privatization of education]. What exists in the autonomous universities today in Venezuela is not ‘autonomy’ but the dictatorship of small fiefdoms.”

The document “From the education that we have, to the education we want and need” defines the current education model in Venezuela as “the inheritance of the entire culture of domination over three centuries, and today is a bastion that assures the reproduction of the capitalist system of exploitation.”

The hegemony of imperialist, neo-colonial and euro-centric systems of knowledge within the traditional universities “decontextualizes” the Venezuelan reality, negating “our multiethnic and pluricultural condition, in order to conceal the social inequalities,” it continues.

The students also described the traditional education model as vertical, alienating, individualistic and negating – a model where the large majority of students only enter university in order to “be something in life,” to graduate and then sell themselves to private capital.

“The education that we need”

In contrast to the peculiar brand of “university autonomy” and the capitalist education model defended by the opposition, Venezuela’s revolutionary student movement is presenting a radically different alternative that essentially involves the democratization and socialization of the university system. The proposal in the document (mentioned above), argues the production of knowledge should derive from the necessities of sustainable social development and be oriented towards the construction of a socialist society. The document goes on to say that the generation of knowledge should be for the benefit of the previously excluded urban, rural, indigenous and afro-descendant majorities, and not for the market. However, it argues the production, consumption and interchange of knowledge, should not only be for the people, but “of the people and by the people.” [xii]

This vision of a new education system calls for the promotion of a collective human ethic for the integral formation of the human being as opposed to the ‘anti-values’ of capitalism – for the promotion of values such as solidarity, cooperation, revolutionary humanism, respect for the environment and the responsible use and consumption of resources as opposed to values of individualism and competition.[xiii]

The document also argues that the point of departure for the “construction of a socialist ethic based in the construction of revolutionary power and a rupture with the institutional order” is a transformational praxis – the simultaneous transformation of the current conjuncture and of consciousness, which provides the “tools to articulate and coordinate” the struggle for the social transformation of society. It continues, “The practical dimension as part of the dialectical unity of theory and practice should be substantiated with the necessities and aspirations of the most pauperized social sectors.”[xiv]

In this sense it argues it is essential that students and teachers should collaborate with social organizations, cooperatives, communal councils, campesino councils and other institutions and put their knowledge at the service of the people, “to carry out projects of integral development constructed and approved by the communities in relation with the project of a society distinct [from capitalism].”

“We are fighting for true autonomy,” Guzman argued. Osly Hernandez, a member of the CPPE, agrees: “We want education for everyone, popular education, where workers and campesinos are part of the model. I can’t conceive of autonomy, without education for the liberation and transformation of our people.”[xv]

“How to get there”

In the aftermath of the RCTV debate the student left has made some ground in the electoral sphere within the public autonomous universities, including the University of Eastern Venezuela (UDO), one of the major autonomous universities, on June 15, and more recently the University Simon Rodriguez, which is traditionally of the left and the University of Western Venezuela, which was never traditionally of the left. “In fact, the left has won a lot of student unions across the country,” Trompiz added. However, the majority of the autonomous, private and experimental universities remain under the control of the opposition. Guzman agreed that, “A pressing task for the student movement is to advance in the consolidation of popular power in these institutions, in the traditional universities and in private institutions… wherever there are elections, we are working hard to win these spaces.” Guzman also said the students were collaborating with revolutionary staff sectors to strengthen the popular movements within the private and autonomous universities.

However, the students view the traditional representative organizations as inadequate mechanisms to carry out the transformation of Venezuela’s higher education system, as the collective document produced through the process of national consultation carried out by the CPPE outlines. “In this historic moment, when the state and the inherited institutions are being questioned, the traditional forms of student organization are also being seriously questioned, and it is a common criticism and sentiment that the traditional, vertical, clientelistic student organizations do not respond to the necessities of the new movement and the construction of socialism,”[xvi] states the document.

Trompiz points to the experience of student organizing in the Bolivarian universities and the missions as an alternative. “We have a system of spokespeople that allows for grassroots representation and it represents 700,000 students. It has a broad base and a very strong legitimacy. But the media do not recognize this, because they refuse to recognize that an education system is functioning in our country, which does not need physical spaces known as universities, but rather it defines all of Venezuela as a university, defines the entire country as an educational space.”

The collective document elaborates a framework for constructing student popular power; “We should consider as a reference the popular community organizations that have transcended the framework of representative democracy, for one of direct democracy and popular organization, for example the Land Committees, Urban Land Committees, Community Roundtables for Water, Energy and Gas, the Missions, and the fundamental instance of the exercise of Popular Power: the Communal Councils.”

The document also calls for the intersection of students and popular sectors, such as workers, campesinos, indigenous communities and so on, through Student Councils of Popular Power and their participation in the Education Committees of the Communal Councils.

The current conjuncture

The momentum behind the rightwing student mobilizations appears to have dissipated, although they carried out a series of demonstrations throughout July “in defense of life” and “for peace” (anti-crime demonstrations) – wearing their ubiquitous white t-shirts,[xvii] which predominantly consisted of media stunts, with the largest only managing to mobilize a few hundred students.

After walking out of the National Assembly debate on RCTV, the opposition student leaders resolved to set up their own Student and Youth Parliament (PJE), which was convened in Zulia in July. However, according to an August 22 article by Aldemaro Barrios Romero, as a result of factional infighting between student leaders aligned to different opposition political parties the PJE has degenerated into an “archipelago of pulverized fragments that will be difficult to unite.”[xviii]

According to Romero a leadership struggle for control of the PJE in which Jhon Boicotea from the party Primero Justicia was placed third after Stalin González and José Caricote from the party Un Nuevo Tiempo, who won the positions of General Coordinator and General Secretary respectively, “produced a stampede of other leaders and groups like Bandera Roja, sections of Primero Justicia and the scraps that remain of Acción Democrática.”

One group of opposition students, which Romero described as “certainly radical, because they oppose everyone, including the opposition” have declared that rebellion is a public good, and not the prerogative of any party or group of parties and have opted to create a new group in opposition to the opposition, the government, and the university authorities called the Independent Movement for Organized Students (MIPEO).

In an analogy reminiscent of Acción Democrática’s president’s comments that described the opposition’s attempts to find a unity candidate for the presidential elections in 2006 as “drunks fighting over and empty bottle,” Romero said the opposition student movement had been converted into a “sack of cats.”

On the other hand, Guzman argues, “The level of popular organization of the [left] student movement has increased. We are working with the community; the rightwing is working simply through the media for the defense of their economic interests. They don’t have any substance in the grassroots.”

Hernandez, like Serra and Trompiz, agrees. “Spaces for strengthening the student movement of the left are growing. I believe the organization of the left is increasing,” said Hernandez. The 2,500-strong National Encounter of Promoters of Student Popular Power, at which over 40 organizations were represented in mid August, is an expression of this increasing organization says Hernandez. The CPPE is now currently working on convoking a further round of assemblies, state by state and region by region, for the creation of thousands more activists for the promotion of student popular power.

As the new university semester begins it is likely that politics will heat up on campus once again as the opposition political parties have called on students to mobilise against Chavez's constituional reform, and the revolutionary student movement is convoking assemblies around the country, organizing students to mobilise in defense of the constitutional reform.

[i] “Who’s pulling the strings? Behind Venezuela’s “Student Rebellion.”George Ciccariello-Maher – CounterPunch

[ii] The Punto-Fijo Pact was a power sharing deal between political parties Accion Democratica and COPEI, who governed the Venezuela for nearly forty years, prior to the Chavez government.

[iii] Interview Cesar Trompiz, 23-08-07

[iv] Interview, Jeyson Guzman 23-08-07

[v] “A la dirigencia estudiantil golpista hay que derrotarla políticamente”, an interview with Prof. Miguel Angel Hernández , Prensa PRS 07/06/07

[vi] “Los Consejos Estudiantiles: Herramienta para la transformación diaria,” Héctor Ruiz  05/08/07 www.aporrea.org

[vii] “A la dirigencia estudiantil golpista hay que derrotarla políticamente”

[viii] “The Battle for Venezuela's Universities,” Kiraz Janicke, Green Left Weekly 14/09/05

[ix] Venezuela’s university system consists of the traditional public autonomous universities, numerous private universities and the non-autonomous institutions, such as the municipal Bolivarian universities, experimental universities, technological institutes and the Missions Alma Mater and Sucre.

[x]Estudiantes bolivarianos realizarán Encuentro Nacional de Promotores : Prensa Vicepresidencia  14/08/07

[xi] “De la Educacion que Tenemos a la que Queremos y Necesitamos,” (Conclusiones de la Jornada Nacional de Debate sobre la Transformacion Educativa), August 2007

[xii] as above

[xiii] as above

[xiv] as above

[xv] Interview Osly Herndadez 23/08/07

[xvi] “De la Educacion que Tenemos a la que Queremos y Necesitamos,”

[xvii] In the opposition campaign around RCTV the majority of the participants wore white, a campaign similar to other US-backed ‘colored’ revolutions, such as the ‘Orange revolution’ in the Ukraine.

[xviii] “Creado otro movimiento estudiantil” Aldemaro Barrios Romero, 22/08/07 www.aporrea.org