Violence and Discrimination Rise in Opposition-Controlled Venezuelan Universities

Venezuela’s Minister of Higher Education, Edgardo Ramírez, called on the authorities in the country’s public autonomous universities to guarantee the safety of the university community after violent incidents occurred in the University of Zulia (LUZ) and the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) on Tuesday.
Students protest against expulsions in the UCV

Caracas, March 17, 2010 ( – Venezuela’s Minister of Higher Education, Edgardo Ramírez, called on the authorities in the country’s public autonomous universities to guarantee the safety of the university community after violent incidents occurred in the University of Zulia (LUZ) and the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) on Tuesday.

In Venezuela police are prohibited from entering the grounds of the public autonomous universities unless specifically invited by the university authorities. The majority of the country’s public autonomous universities have become a bastion of rightwing political opposition to the process of radical social change known as the Bolivarian Revolution, and employ private security firms to patrol the campuses.

In recent years under opposition control and with millions of dollars being channelled to rightwing student groups under the guise of “democracy promotion” by U.S. government-linked organisations such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Venezuela’s public autonomous universities have become a hotbed of violence.

Ramírez called on the rector of LUZ, Jorge Palencia, to guarantee the safety of staff and students after a shootout near the university left one former student dead and two students injured yesterday.

“If rector Palencia does not have sufficient capacity to ensure security within the university community, then he should contact the security agencies of the Venezuelan State to address this situation,” he advised.

“We cannot allow such situations recur. I demand university authorities establish communication with the ministry so we can obtain clear and detailed information on the events,” he said.

“Universities are places to study and to produce knowledge, so that students can research and provide solutions to the country…we cannot tolerate these types of situations” he continued.

Ramírez assured, “The national government is disposed and committed to ensure the right to study and the internal safety of the universities, but [university] authorities also need to collaborate and take responsibility and commitment.”

At the UCV, rector Cecilia García Arocha, reported that 15 masked men entered the university grounds over night, confiscated the keys from the private security guards, and firebombed her office.

Although the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Police, (CICPC) had not finished collecting evidence from the scene, Arocha attempted to link the attack to supporters of president Chávez.

Violent clashes have previously erupted between pro-government and opposition student groups at the UCV. Unedited footage from Avila TV of an incident in November 2007 showed a mob of predominantly male opposition students, some wearing balaclavas and tear gas masks, surrounding the School of Social Work, (where 123 pro-Chavez students and administrative staff were hiding), throwing rocks, chairs and other objects, smashing windows and attempting to burn down the building.

National Civil Protection officers then intervened in the conflict and acted to secure the release of the 123 students and staff trapped inside the building

An unidentified group of armed men, wearing balaclavas also allegedly entered the campus and set fire to a bus and fired at students. Pro-opposition private media blamed the incident on armed government supporters.

The attack on the rector’s office Tuesday night occurred in the context of a campaign by the university authorities to install electronic gates to control access to the university for “security reasons”.

Pro-revolution students have been campaigning against the installation of the security gates, saying the attempt by the university authorities to control access to the campus grounds is part of a continuing a policy of exclusion and privatization.

Nine students are threatened with expulsion after the University Council opened disciplinary proceedings against them for peacefully distributing leaflets on November 12 last year against the installation of the security gates.

Andrea Pacheco, one of the students facing expulsion said the revolutionary students condemn the attack on the rector’s office and said, “The only people who benefit from this attack are those who want to criminalize and demonize the pro-revolution student movement.”

The public autonomous universities have become a “refuge of coup plotters, a refuge of fascists and we will continue mobilizing against this repression against us” Pacheco added.

Pacheco also denounced that the professors that form part of the disciplinary tribunal are recognised leaders of opposition political parties, including José Manuel Tamayo, a law professor and leader of the Democratic Action Party.

Pro-revolution students will also be organising protests against the violence and against political persecution by universities authorities Pacheco said.

Another student facing expulsion from the UCV, Yesiel Reyes, has begun a hunger strike to protest what he described as political persecution and violations of civil and constitutional rights by the university authorities.

Reyes said the University Council has constituted itself as judge and jury to investigate and sentence Bolivarian students simply for expressing their political opinions.

The president of the Student Council in the School of Social Work (UCV), Kevin Avila, who is also facing the disciplinary tribunal, said that the University Council is taking action against students because “they are made uncomfortable by our words, by allegations of irregularities in this university.”

“We will continue with the demonstrations. This is a political persecution.” he added.

Activists from the March-28 Movement for University Transformation (M-28) also protested on Monday against the implementation of internal entrance examinations and fees in the Faculty of Humanities and Education in the UCV.

In the examinations carried out at the UCV last Sunday in which 15,000 potential students competed for 400 places, aspirants were questioned about the salary of their family and charged 60 bolivares per head.

M-28 spokesperson Vicente Moronta said the internal entrance examinations held in the UCV are “anti-democratic, classist and exclusive” and violate article 102 of the Venezuelan Constitution that defines access to education as a universal, unconditional and inalienable human right.

Public university education in Venezuela is nominally free; however, notoriously corrupt practices by traditional university authorities, such as the implementation of expensive internal examinations and payment of bribes in order to gain university places has meant that university education has traditionally been restricted to upper and middle class Venezuelans who can afford to pay.

Last year the government introduced a new law to establish a national standardised university entrance examination system in order to expand university access to poorer and working class Venezuelans, however a number of university authorities rejected the new system claiming it is a violation of university autonomy.

The Director of Enrollment and Student Performance at the Ministry of Higher Education (MEU), Bernardo Ancidey said the government hopes that by 2011 the “discriminatory and exclusive” practise of internal examinations will be eliminated.

Ancidey pointed out that of the 26 public universities in Venezuela only six are reported to be continuing the practise of holding their own internal entrance examinations; the UCV, the Simón Bolívar University, the University of Carabobo, the Experimental University of Tachira, the Rafael Urdaneta University, and the Libertador Experimental Pedagogical University.

Arocha declared on Monday that the UCV will continue implementing and charging potential students for internal entrance examinations claiming it is necessary because the university budget is “deficient.”

The government has also attempted to make the public autonomous universities more accountable amidst reports that university authorities are diverting funds into investment projects such as shopping malls and housing complexes, and away from educational resources.

In the context of resistance from traditional university elites to expand access to the poor, the Chavez government has implemented new parallel systems such as the Bolivarian University where education is completely free as well as the massive expansion of the national experimental universities, including the National Experimental University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA).

Over the past ten years UNEFA has grown from a university that catered for only 2,500 students, to become the largest university in Venezuela with 39 campuses and 250,000 students.

The government has also embarked on a plan to construct eighteen new universities around the country, including the University of Catia in the poorer western suburbs of Caracas.