Mérida, March 17th 2011 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Tens of thousands of students and university-based workers marched in Caracas on Thursday to demand the radical “transformation” of higher education in Venezuela.
Arriving from a number of universities and institutions across the country, marchers gathered at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) – one of the nation’s largest public university systems – to demand a “new type of university” that facilitates the social changes occurring in Venezuela since the start of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Speaking to reporters during the march, UBV student leader Carmen Victoria Turmero explained her reasons for participating in Thursday’s action. “With this march we are supporting the transformation of [Venezuelan] universities; we are supporting the Bicentennial Student Congress, we are supporting the Law of University Education. A huge opening is being made to discuss more laws and introduce the legality of a Student-led Social Comptroller,” said Turmero.
The Bicentennial Student Congress cited by Turmero is expected in May of this year and proposes the formation of what Turmero called a “Patriotic Pole of Students” – a university-based version of the pro-Chávez coalition being reinvigorated to secure the re-election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in elections scheduled for December of 2012.
The Law of University Education, which president Chávez refused to sign earlier this year, includes the proposal for a student-led auditing system (social comptroller) mentioned by Turmero. The radical law, approved by socialist legislators in Venezuela’s outgoing National Assembly in late 2010, was returned by Chávez to the National Assembly in February 2011. According to Yadira Córdoba, the newly-appointed Minister of University Education, Chávez returned the law so that, “the people participate with more drive in the debate on university transformation.”
“The majority of people were not sufficiently informed about the issue [the law], which is why we’ve kicked off the year debating it across the country,” affirmed Minister Córdoba at the time.
Córdoba, who joined in on Thursday’s march, affirmed that only force capable of securing change in Venezuela’s university-level systems is the combined “force of university students, academic workers, employees and administrators.”
Asked about recent opposition-led student hunger strikes and the refusal by opposition students to participate in televised debates earlier this week, Córdoba responded by inviting “everyone to not lose an opportunity to live and construct in democracy.”
“Here [in Venezuela] there is space for diversity,” she said. “This Revolution guarantees the rights of everyone, independent of their political and ideological positions.”
According José Berríos, General Secretary of the UBV, “the march towards a transformation of [Venezuelan] universities has already begun, and there’s no going back.”
Berríos spoke to reporters Thursday morning as marchers gathered at UBV headquarters in the Caracas’ Los Chaguaramos neighborhood.
“There is a debate underway and there are two positions, two conceptions, two ways of focusing in on the transformation, and we conceive this transformation as happening through debate, a dialogue,” he said.
Berríos also insisted that the progressive community at Venezuelan universities nationwide “support the possibility that through democratic debate a new university be born, a new university aligned with the transformations that the country is experiencing.”
Marchers gathered at the UBV’s main campus and took their demands to the doorsteps of Venezuela’s Miraflores Presidential Palace in a clear display of support for the Chávez government.
The UBV was the first of several public universities created during the Chávez government. Established by presidential decree in 2003, the UBV was first intended to allow graduates of the government’s pre-university Sucre Mission to access higher education. The UBV is open to all Venezuelans, regardless of where they obtained their high school diplomas, and is entirely free of charge.
Richard Meza, student at Venezuela’s National Experimental University of the Bolivarian Armed Forces (UNEFA), insisted that all of the country’s universities “orient their educational materials and methods towards [social] inclusion, with high-quality characteristics in the social sciences. That is the university that the Bolivarian Revolution offers us and that is the university we defend.”
The UNEFA was first established in 1974 through a presidential decree by then president Rafael Caldera. While it began as an institute for university-level technical training, UNEFA was later amplified by a Chávez presidential decree in 1999. Since then, UNEFA has greatly expanded its course offerings and its presence nationwide, making it the institution of higher education with the greatest number of students in Venezuela – 240,000 in total.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Venezuela has the world’s fifth highest percentage of university-level enrollment. With 83% of those Venezuelans eligible to access higher education currently doing so, the UNESCO report, released late last year, placed Venezuela second in the region of Latin America – Cuba holds first. Venezuela’s score (83%) is 2.5 times the regional average of 34%, and is followed by Argentina (67%), Uruguay (64%), and Chile (52%). The Central American nations of El Salvador and Guatemala are reported as having 22% and 18%, respectively.