Mérida, May 21st 2009 (Venezuelanalysis.com) - A group of Venezuelan university students and administrators, opposition political party officials, and employees of the opposition television station Globovision marched to the Higher Education Ministry on Wednesday to protest the government's 6% cut in university budgets as part of an overall government spending reduction amidst the world economic crisis.
In March the government of President Hugo Chávez reduced the overall national budget by 6.7% in response to the worldwide drop in the price of oil, Venezuela's principal export. Its package of austerity measures prioritizes investments in the productive sector, maintains spending on social programs, increases the minimum wage, raises the sales tax, increases domestic debt, eliminates government ministries, and reduces executive salaries and unnecessary spending in all public institutions.
As part of the national cutback in spending, the Higher Education Ministry reduced the budgets of public universities by 6%. Minister Luis Acuña sent a statement of intent to university administrators, who decide how the budget will be spent, that employee salaries and student services such as the cafeteria, housing, and transportation should not be cut.
Wednesday's march against the budget reduction was called by the rector of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), Cecilia García, and attended by right wing student groups, Greater Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and other opposition officials, Globovision employees, and blocs of opposition party activists bearing shirts and hats with the logos of their respective parties.
Turnout at the demonstration was weakened by disagreements over whether marchers should focus solely on the university budget or also protest the government's investigation of Globovision for irresponsible and subversive behavior, which has generated a heated national debate in recent weeks.
The march ended up focusing largely on the budget, but protestors held signs and wore clothing bearing the logo of Globovision, and chanted their opposition to the government's investigation of the private news outlet for allegedly threatening the life of the president, inciting a coup d'etat, and breaking electoral laws.
When the several hundred marchers arrived at the Higher Education Ministry, Minister Acuña received their document outlining their objections to the budget reduction, and invited García along with several opposition student leaders to hold an immediate face-to-face discussion with a group of pro-government student leaders in the Ministry.
As the debate began, García declared the situation an "ambush" and a "trick," and walked out. She told the press that the debate on university budgets should take place "in the university, not in prefabricated debates oriented towards only one type of thought."
Pro-government student organizations said they did not join the march because the university administrators are corrupt and have repeatedly denied students' demand for a more participatory process for decisions on how to spend the budget.
"The rectors talk about the reduction of the budget but they don't mention the 90,000 bolivars (US$ 42,000) the authorities gave themselves in bonuses," said student organizer María José Gómez, who was campaigning on campus "to inform [students] so that they don't let themselves be manipulated."
"We do not know how the authorities spend the budget," said UCV student Andreina Tarazon, adding that university administrators recently replaced their fleet of cars and held a luxurious retreat on Venezuela's Margarita Island.
According to student leader Oliver Rivas, 45% of the UCV budget went unspent in 2008. "We know that that money, half of the 2008 budget, was earning interest in university bank accounts, and it hasn't been clarified what has been done with the money," he said.
The director of the university planning office in the Higher Education Ministry, Antonio Castejon, pointed out that the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), a free public university created by the Chávez administration, has a national student body of 130,000 and a budget that is one fifth of the budget of the UCV, which has a student body of 40,000. "This makes it clear that it is necessary to review what is happening in the UCV," he said.
Castejon pointed out that Venezuela spends 7% of its national budget on public universities, which is the amount recommended by the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture organization (UNESCO), and has significantly expanded the national student grants program called Fundayacucho.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Minister Acuña expressed his support for more participatory university budget decisions. "We have said that it is very good that the debate about the budget is held and that it be discussed with workers, employees, and that it be a participatory decision and not a petty cash drawer [for administrators]," he said.
"The rectors of the country's universities are manipulating the student body and trying to make them believe that the student services and employee wages will be affected," said Acuña.
The president of the UCV workers union, Carlos Suarez, declared the union's opposition to Wednesday's march, and also advocated a participatory budgeting process. "We said to the university authorities that the budget must be managed with social comptrollership, and we could be part of this auditing. This petition has been denied," said Suarez.
1,200 police officers and firefighters were deployed to vigil Wednesday's march, after unidentified masked men set fire to a bus and set off several explosions on the UCV campus on Tuesday night. The march proceeded peacefully and did not clash with police. In the past, student-led marches have frequently been violent.