Students in Venezuela
are at the center of a national debate on constitutional reforms.
Recently, a violent clash on a university campus in Caracas made international news. But
what do we really know about Venezuela's
newest political actors?
On December 2nd, a referendum on constitutional reforms will
allow the Venezuelan electorate to vote 'yes' or 'no' on two sets of proposed
articles. Throughout the reform process, students have been at the center
of the action. They held open sessions in downtown Caracas to discuss the reform proposal while
it was still being debated in the National Assembly. Since then, students
have been received by representatives of three of Venezuela's five branches of
government. Lawmakers invited opposition student leaders to debate the
reforms with other youngsters who defended the changes to the constitution, and
allowed student protesters to enter congress and express their demands. The
Supreme Court of Venezuela accepted a proposal from the students asking them to
scrutinize the legality of the reforms. The independent National
Electoral Council also heard student demands, namely the request that it
postpone the referendum.
All of this took place amid an air of tolerance that few would expect from
the politically divided Venezuela.
In truth, the events showed a level of openness on the part of government
officials that surpasses what we have come to expect in the U.S.
Then last week, the peace was shattered when news reports came that gunfire
erupted at the Central
University after a march.
Two were wounded. Images of the violence were
shocking. Press reports made it appear as
though students in favor of the reforms had attacked those against
them. However, the opposite occurred; participants in an opposition
demonstration targeted a group of pro-government students at the social work
school by trapping them inside a burning building. Finding themselves
surrounded by flames, the social work students made desperate phone calls
asking friends to help them escape. Some of their rescuers were armed and
fired shots in the confusion of the hasty exodus.
The straight story is buried amid a recent Wall Street Journal
article on student movements that glorifies opposition leader Stalin Gonzalez.
The article reads: "The law school's student-center room, a base for
Chávez supporters, still smells of charred wood and plastic from a fire that
recently destroyed it. Workmen are still cleaning up the School of Social Work.
There, pro-Chávez students barricaded themselves for several hours during a
standoff with a crowd of students, until a group of armed civilians on
motorcycles intervened to allow the Chávez supporters to escape."
The Journal describes "students" pitted against "pro-Chavez
students," as though the latter were some kind of exception. This is
hardly the case. Marches in favor of the reforms consistently draw tens
of thousands of Venezuelans, both young and old, to the streets.
President Chavez has said that the opposition students are the children of
wealthy elites such as those who led an abortive coup against him in
2002. While the student movement cannot be reduced entirely to the issue
of social class, young people's politics do tend to break down along the same
lines as divisions among the rest of Venezuelan society. Traditional
elites stand to gain the least from the new pro-poor government policies under
Chavez, and so are unsupportive of the president they deridingly call a
"monkey," while on the other hand, the large underclass of poor and
marginalized Venezuelans - including Black and Indigenous citizens - is
gradually becoming more empowered. New voter registration campaigns have
targeted minorities and millions of families are benefiting from new state-subsidized
programs in medicine, nutrition, sanitation, literacy, and other essential
areas of human development. Elites complain that the state should lessen
social expenditures, that such efforts are a waste or an effort to buy
It is no surprise, then, that students at private and elite universities are
those most likely to oppose the constitutional reforms. Meanwhile,
students at state-run "Bolivarian" universities, where hundreds of
thousands of low-income Venezuelans are finally gaining access to higher
education, are overwhelmingly in support of the changes.
Two of the reforms that will be put to Venezuelan voters next week pertain
to specifically students' rights. Article 109 would allow university
students to choose their school administrators through elections in which one
student vote would have the same weight as one faculty vote in campus politics
(instead of ten students equaling one professor). Instead of the
"crackdown" on universities that some claim is President Chavez's
true intention, the reform would increase student self-determination in all
institutions of higher learning.
A second article would reduce the legal voting age to just sixteen.
Since about three-quarters of Venezuelans are under the age of thirty,
this could give access to the ballot to about two million youths. And, if
student participation in electoral processes resembles student prominence in
street-level political actions such as marches, these young people may truly
become an amazing force for change.
Some claim that Venezuela's
reforms would keep President Chavez in office for life and allow him to censor
dissent. Neither of
these things is likely to happen. Democratic culture in Venezuela is
thriving, as is clearly demonstrated by the student movements. Whether young
people in Venezuela
advocate pro- or anti-government positions, their active engagement in local
and national debates should be taken as a positive sign.
Megan Morrissey spent a year in Venezuela as an exchange student
with AFS Intercultural Programs. She now works as a media analyst at the Venezuela Information Office in Washington, DC.