Violence and Transformation in Venezuela’s Public Universities

The
Venezuelan government's decision to reduce federal funding for the nation's
public universities in May generated two months of political turbulence that
erupted into violence on university campuses. The conflict is rooted in a
broader national debate over the role of education in society and the role of the
state in public education.
By Zachary Lown – Venezuelanalysis.com

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Fire fighters extinguish a UCV bus burned by assailants during  the opposition march last May 20th
Fire fighters extinguish a UCV bus burned by assailants during the opposition march last May 20th
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The
Venezuelan government's decision to reduce federal funding for the nation's
public universities in May generated two months of political turbulence that
erupted into violence on university campuses. The conflict is rooted in a
broader national debate over the role of education in society and the role of the
state in public education.

The
Chavez government is attempting to modify the nation's educational system in
line with socialist values. To this effect the Chavez government has taken
steps to broaden access to higher education, and the pro-Chavez student
movement has called for greater student control over the management of
university budgets. In addition, the government is currently drafting a new law
which would facilitate the participation of councils composed of students,
their families and the local communities in academic life. This has clashed
with the interests of the entrenched, opposition-aligned university
administrations and their student allies who are largely identified with the
middle and upper class minority of Venezuelans. This elite constituency fervently
defends the autonomy of the university from the state.

Violence on Campuses

The
government's decision to cut university funding came as part of an overall 6.7
percent reduction in the national budget in response to the global financial
crisis. The political opposition seized on the budget cuts to generate student
street protests against the Chavez government. From the other side of the
spectrum, pro- Chavez students organized to demand greater accountability from the
opposition-aligned university administrators who they accused of swindling
university funds. At the height of this mobilization, unidentified individuals perpetrated
violent attacks against both opposition and pro-Chavez students at the Central
University of Venezuela (UCV).

Venezuela's
public universities enjoy the status of "autonomy" which means that the
government allocates funding but the university manages the funds
independently. Chavez's minister for higher education, Luis Acuña, has stated publicly
that the university budget reduction "must not touch student facilities, such
as the cafeteria and transportation, among others, nor the [payment of]
personnel." [1] Acuña has urged university administrators to do what many other
directors of government institutions have done and cut back on unnecessary
spending including executive salaries and luxuries such as cars, cell phones,
travel, and elaborate conferences, in line with Chavez's executive order issued
last March. In contrast, opposition leaders, including university
administrators, have declared that the budget cuts seek to cut back on student
benefits and could even result in the closure of the public universities.

The
violence began on May 19th on the eve of an opposition march called
by the UCV rector Cecilia García. At around 7pm on the night prior to the march,
individuals on motorcycles entered campus grounds and discharged firearms at
the Student Union building. On the day of the march, May 20th, masked
individuals burned three university buses. This was followed by an attack on a pro-Chavez
student from the School of Social Work who was shot in the abdomen and leg.

Two
days later, on May 22nd, approximately 20 masked individuals
carrying automatic weapons and acting in a coordinated and professional manner
entered the Law Faculty and searching it room by room asked for the whereabouts
of students from the pro-Chavez student organization called the March 28th
Movement (M-28).

Tensions were reignited again last month at the UCV when unidentified assailants
launched tear gas canisters at a group of pro-Chavez students who were
participating in a hunger strike against the university administration. These
students were protesting the administration's decision to offload the recent
budget cuts onto student services such as the cafeteria and transportation.

On
June 18th the first floor of the student union building was broken
into and set on fire. The office of Ricardo Sanchez, an oppositionist and
president of the student union, was also damaged, though it is not clear if
this was the principal target of the arson. Reportedly, Sanchez had previously
received death threats. [2]

Although
the identity of the assailants remains a mystery and despite the fact that
Chavista students have been the main victims, opposition political parties and
newspapers have immediately pointed the finger at the Chavez government
claiming that it is responsible for the violent acts.

This article does not pretend to solve the riddle of who is behind these
conspiratorial actions, but it is always useful to ask the following question:
which political actors stand to benefit from this violence? The answer seems
obvious: the political opposition.

Immediately following the first incident of campus violence, the oppositionist
daily newspaper El Nacional, without clarifying the identity of the culprits,
ran the cover story headline, "Government violence does not impede university
march."

Ismael
García, a deputy in the National Assembly and leader of the opposition Podemos
party, alleged that these actions are part of a plan by the central government
to criminalize student protesters and thus provide the pretext to invade and
take over the universities.[3] Ostensibly, such a take-over would nullify the
autonomous status which prohibits government security forces from entering
campus grounds.

Opposition student leaders echo the idea that the violence constitutes part of
a government plan. The leader of the opposition group "100% Students" at the
UCV said at a press conference following these incidents that, "There is a plan
by the government to create violence and chaos inside of the UCV and thus
justify a [government] intervention." [4]

In contrast, Vicente Moronta, one of the students sought after by the armed
group which entered the Law Faculty on May 22nd, blamed the top
rector of the University for the violence. "They are trying not only to silence
our voice, but also to end the lives of human beings, in this case, of those
who support the project of socialism," said Moronta.[5] When asked about the
identity of the individuals, whose military maneuvers appeared more
professional than the typical rag-tag student violence, Moronta posited that,
"We suspect that they are paramilitaries that are connected to police forces
from Eastern Caracas, possibly the Polibaruta or the Polichacao," he said,
referring to two police forces located in opposition strongholds.[6] The
Polichacao, or Chacao police force played a role in aiding the coup attempt of
2002 which resulted in the death of at least 19 civilians and temporarily
ousted Chavez from office.

Other theories abound with regards to who is responsible. The talk show host
Mario Silva blamed the violent opposition party Bandera Roja while Luis
Fuenmayor, a former rector of the UCV, credits "vanguardist," "ultra left wing
groups which sympathize with the National Government."[7]

Notwithstanding who is responsible, this violence has benefited the opposition
in two important ways. First, the attacks further strengthen the opposition's
claim that the government cannot provide security to its citizens, or in this
case, to their sons and daughters who attend the country's public universities.
The opposition levels virulent criticism in reaction to government initiatives
but frequently falls short of providing any concrete alternatives to solving
societal ills such as access to healthcare, the lack of housing, or poverty.
The problem of insecurity, however, is the opposition's golden arrow since
crime and murder rates have risen precipitously since the urban rioting of 1989
and have accelerated since Chavez assumed office in 1998. The opposition has
been largely successful in shaping the public debate such that the Chavez
government is linked to this rising crime. Moderate opposition voices bemoan
the government's inability to address the problem of insecurity. More hard line
oppositionists often state falsely that Chavez directly encourages the poor to
steal from the rich and urges Chavistas to attack oppositionists.

Second, the chaos brought by the violence has impeded any genuine national
debate regarding how Venezuela's education system should be run and structured.
Last month, following the protest march at the UCV, pro-Chavez parliamentarians
invited Rector Garcia and opposition students to a public debate in the
National Assembly. Yet a few minutes into the debate the rector declared it an
"ambush" and a "trick" and walked out. The lack of debate has allowed for the
prolongation of the status quo whereby university administrators, who are
overwhelmingly aligned with the opposition, continue to use their autonomous
status to run the universities like private companies with little governmental oversight.

The Educator State vs. the Autonomous University

In
addition to deciding how the budget cuts will be administered, this conflict
also hinges on whether public education should be the responsibility of the
state or of the autonomous universities.

In the end of June, Chavez's ministers of education sent their proposal for a
new education law to the National Assembly. According to Education Minister
Acuña, the new law will establish the role of the state in "democratizing
admissions" policy, establishing the qualifications for educators and promoting
a curriculum which extols "democratic values" in both basic and higher
education.[8] Significantly, this new law reasserts the principle of the
"Educator State," or Estado Docente. The
Estado Docente designates to the
state the primary responsibility in directing the education of its citizenry.[9]
This political concept has roots in the ideas of General Simon Bolívar who at
the outset of the Venezuelan Republic believed it necessary for the state to
instill republican values and ideals of social harmony.[10] In response to
Acuña's attempt to augment the authority of the state, the Professor's
Association at the UCV has already announced that it is preparing to defend
"the institutionalism of the academy as a free space for the formation of a
plurality of thought and criticism."[11]

The
Estado Docente clasheswith another key political tradition in
Venezuela which upholds the "autonomous" status of Venezuela's public universities.
University autonomy was also formulated during the epoch of Simon Bolivar. It
was created during Venezuela's 19th century independence movement in
part to undo the monopoly which the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church held
over education.[12] "Autonomy was originally designed to facilitate the free
[and unimpeded] search for the truth," says Professor Hernán Lopes of the
University of the Andes (ULA) in Merida.[13]

To
this day, the autonomous status grants university administrators control over
the university's budget, admissions policy and the establishment of academic
curriculum. It also bans state security forces from entering university grounds.
This law is reinforced by the experience of the 1970s when President Rafael
Caldera sent tanks onto the UCV campus which he claimed was harboring
guerrillas and then closed the university for two years.

Yet
according to Professor Lopes, in the context of Venezuela's current political
conflict the concept of autonomy has been twisted and utilized by university
authorities who have "converted the university into an arm of a [opposition]
political party."[14] Lopes also states that the top rectors, beginning years
ago, have merely sought to utilize the university as a launching pad into
political office. For example the top rector of the University of the Andes
(ULA), Lester Rodríguez, was elected as the opposition mayor of Merida last
November.

Student Opposition

Just
as administrators and professors have increasingly converted the university
into a bastion of Venezuela's political right wing it is also the case that the
student movement has, to a large extent, become associated with this political
opposition. Over the past three decades the universities have become
increasingly limited to the children of the middle and upper class. The recent
anti-Chavez protests against the budget cuts have demonstrated the way in which
opposition parties seek to mobilize this student constituency for political
ends.

In
part, opposition parties have looked to these student groups because during
Chavez's presidency massive street demonstrations have played an important role
in Venezuelan politics. President Chavez and his United Socialist Party of
Venezuela (PSUV) have the ability to organize mass demonstrations with little
prior preparation. In contrast, the political opposition representative of
business and elite interests lacks a street force on par with the Chavistas who
are predominantly working class. For this reason they have sought to utilize
students to generate a street presence and to demonstrate to Venezuelan society
that they constitute a popular and massively supported political alternative.

This
opposition strategy was revealed during the demonstrations against the non
renewal of the broadcast license for the opposition television station Radio
Caracas Television (RCTV) in 2006. At this time it was discovered that
opposition parties in conjunction with publicity companies from the United
States were scripting student speeches and even designing student opposition
logos and slogans.[15]

Similarly,
the recent march on May 20th in Caracas was called by Cecilia García, rector of
the UCV, and supported and attended by leading oppositionists and their party
members. Also, in Merida, which houses the nation's third largest university,
oppositionist administrators have provided resources to student demonstrators
who in recent weeks have initiated violent protests to object to the budget
cuts. These resources include the free use of campus grounds for launching
violent protests and lawyers to defend students who are arrested for sacking
stores and vehicles.

Although
many claim that the opposition students are being manipulated, these students
frequently display a genuine and at times vicious class antagonism toward the
pro-Chavez students, many of whom come from the lower economic classes. In
part, this resentment has been sown by the government's creation of a parallel
educational system which prioritizes access for students from poorer
backgrounds. To this end the Chavez government created the military academy the
National Experimental Polytechnic University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA) in
1999. It also inaugurated the high school- completion-program Mission Ribas and
the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) in 2003. In addition, the
government has implemented Mission Sucre which provides higher education
scholarships and facilitates the process whereby a student is transitioned into
the public university system.

Opposition
students argue that the government is cutting funding from the autonomous
universities such as the UCV and the ULA and putting it into these
non-autonomous, government-created institutions where it imposes socialist
indoctrination as part of its march toward dictatorship. A closer look at the
numbers, however, reveals that the UBV which has a national student body of
130,000 possess a budget that is one fifth of the budget of the UCV, which has
a student body of 40,000.[16]

Opposition
students further argue that those who graduate from the high school completion
program Mission Ribas receive a lower quality of education and should therefore
not be granted the same diploma and awarded the same credentials as those who
graduate from a regular public or private high school.

Another
source of tension is the Education Ministry's decision to lower the required
test scores for enrollment at the autonomous public universities. Over the past
thirty years the raising of required entrance exam scores has provided an
obstacle for college aspirants from poorer economic backgrounds that could not
afford a tutor and who were therefore less competitive candidates. Currently,
the lowering of the required test scores and the rapid growth of Venezuela's
college age population has expanded what is already an overcrowded class size
and overstretched academic resources.

As
an expression of this resentment, opposition students in Merida attacked the
UNEFA with rocks, breaking several windows, and burned a Venezuelan flag in
front of the university when it received a funding increase in 2007. Similarly,
when the oppositionist Henrique Capriles was sworn in as governor of Miranda
state last November his supporters barricaded the entrance to Mission Sucre and
Mission Ribas offices thus prohibiting students from attending classes, an
episode which constitutes one incident in a string of opposition violence in
late 2008 against pro-Chavez institutions, Cuban doctors and government
workers. In addition, during confrontations opposition students often insult
the Chavista students by calling them marginales,
or marginals, which is meant to be a derogative term for poor people, as one
student in Merida recently explained.

The Chavista Students' Response:
Democratize the University

Pro-Chavez
students have also taken to the streets so as to challenge the current
university structure. On June 16th students at the UBV held a mass
march and discussed how to structure a more humanistic and socialist
pedagogical system. They also called for students to have a say in
administrative affairs by creating a system of "co-government" in the
universities. Similarly, nearly 2,000 students, educators, and government
workers, among others, marched in Merida in the end of June "in rejection of
the student violence" and "to support peace."

Jose
Luis, a student in the school of Social Work at the UBV in Merida, explains
that in contrast to the old educational system the purpose of this recently
created university, "is to create an Academy with integrity where the academic
content is not merely the professor giving us instructions but rather where we [jointly
design the curriculum]. This is a profound break with the old system of relations
between the professor and the students." He adds that the aim is to create the
"new socialist professional" and to promote ideals that emphasize "the
collective well being."

Simon
Adrade, the student representative for the Humanities Department at the ULA, says
that the revolutionary student movement must retake the initiative from the
right-wing students. "The student movement cannot merely be reactive," he says,
"we must engage in social action, in cultural and economic action, [rather
than] merely participating in the electoral [arena]." He adds that, "rather
than awaiting directions [from Caracas] we must establish our own conception of
the revolution [and] of the university."

At
the Male Student Residence in Merida students are discussing the creation of a
broad "anti-fascist front" to lead activities that will alert the populace
about the dangers of opposition conspiracies and destabilization plans.

In the coming weeks it is obvious that something must be done to provide a
measure of security. Until recently the antagonism between the universities and
the government has prevented any joint security initiatives.

Finally,
on Tuesday, June 22nd top officials from the Ministry of the
Interior, the Ministry of Education, the Office of University Planning and the
UCV convened to create an Operational Security Committee. Following the meeting
Acuña told the press that the state will guarantee safety in the area surrounding
campus while it is the responsibility of the University to ensure internal security.
"We want to guarantee that the Bolivarian Government is respectful of the
University's autonomy and in no moment will it incur on university property nor
on any other institution," said Acuña.[17]

At
the beginning of July the National Assembly has initiated debates on the new
education law. This coming month the government will likely conduct a
nation-wide audit of university expenditures. Both issues have the potential to
ignite new conflict.


Notes

[1]
Lorena Fereira. "Diálogo nulo entre ucevistas y Gobierno." Últimas
Noticias. 21 May 2009. p 3.

[2] Eligio Rojas. "Amenazaron de muerte a un dirigente estudiantil." Últimas
Noticias. 29 May 2009. P 29.

[3] "Ismael García denunció que el gobierno
tiene plan para tomar las universidades." Pico Bolivar. 26 May 2009. p 5.

[4] "Se recalienta la UCV." Ultimas Noticias. 26 May 2009. p 26.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Luis Fuenmayor Toro. "Los violentos." Últimas
Noticias. 27 May 2009. p 52.

[8] Marco A. Ruiz. "Estado insiste en controlar ingreso a las universidades." 24 June 2009. p
2.

[9] According to Professor Ramón Alexander of the UCV, the Estado Docente posits that the stateis the, "legitimate representative of the supreme interests of the
nation" and that "education [is understood] as an essential part of the process
of social assimilation and individual [formation] which is ruled by values and
norms of social harmony." The state must therefore, "assume the direction of
the educational process to ensure social development and the [survival] of its
fundamental institutions."
Source: Alexander Uzcátegui, Ramón. "Algunos rasgos conceptúales e históricos para
caracterizar Estado Docente en Venezuela." Memoria
Educativa Venezolana
. Online. Director: Ramón
Alexander Uzcátegui. Accessed: 25 June 2009. < http://memoriaeducativa.pbworks.com/f/estadodocente.doc>.

[10] In
Bolivar's famous Speech of Angostura, the constituent congress which aimed to
reestablish the Venezuelan republic following the war of independence, Bolivar
signals that in order to live in a republic the state must first form
Republicans. For this reason the state must construct education as the basis
for a modern society, "Morality and Enlightenment are the poles of the
Republic, morality and enlightenment are our primary necessities," says
Bolivar. According to Bolivar, to establish order and the supremacy of the law
education is fundamental because it guides the formation of morality and the
temperament required of its citizenry, says Professor Alexander Uzcátegui of
the UCV.
Source: Alexander Uzcátegui, Ramón. "Algunos rasgos conceptúales e históricos para
caracterizar Estado Docente en Venezuela." Memoria
Educativa Venezolana
. Online. Director: Ramón Alexander
Uzcátegui. Accessed: 25 June 2009. < http://memoriaeducativa.pbworks.com/f/estadodocente.doc>.
The Estado Docente was also written into law by Venezuela's
first democratic government in 1945. At the time of its passage this law
provoked a fierce reaction from the Catholic Church which had an important
stake in education through its religious high schools. The Church thus called
upon its followers to rebel against the ruling, socialist Democratic Action
party. The democratic government indeed fell just three years later to a
military dictatorship in 1948.

[11] "Professores rechazan violencia en la UCV." Últimas Noticias. 24 June 2009. p 6.

[12] Carmona Rodriguez, Mirian. "Autonomía universitaria en
Venezuela: siglo XIX." Procesos Históricos. Year 6, Nº 12. The University
of the Andes, Merida, Venezuela. Online. Saber. Accessed: 25 June 2009.
<https://www.saber.ula.ve/bitstream/123456789/23222/2/articulo4.pdf>.

[13] "Contra-golpe." Vanessa Davies. VTV. 9 pm. 17 June
2009.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See: "Legislators Present Evidence that Politicians
Are Behind Venezuelan Student Protests." <http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/1767>  and for the role of U.S. PR firms see: "Who's Pulling the Strings Behind
Venezuela's ‘Student Rebellion?'" <http://www.counterpunch.org/maher06092007.html
>.

[16] James Suggett. "University Administrators
and Students March, Debate Budget with Venezuelan Education Ministry." 21 May 2009. Online. Venezuelanalysis.com.
<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/4459>.

[17] "Gobierno y UCV trabajarán juntos para disminuir la violencia." Frontera.
23 June 2009. P 4A.

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