The Electoral Strategy
Since 2001, the Venezuelan public, independent, and experimental universities have entered a critical period that extends to the present. Probably in no Latin American country do these educational centers face such a complicated situation.
A month ago, the Federation of University Teachers Associations of Venezuela (FAPUV) went on an indefinite hunger strike. Then three weeks ago, another twenty teachers and students started their own hunger strike. Despite protests and national support, the government does not even bother with dialogue.
There is an element of revenge in the mistreatment perpetrated by the government against the independent universities, perhaps explained as the vengeance of an arrogant ruling elite corrupted by a desire to stay in power endlessly and eliminate all vestiges of autonomy of state institutions and civil organizations.
The regime makes a constant effort to capture the universities and submit them to their socialist model. They have tried different formulas. Some of them have been peaceful, but most of them have been violent.
In 2000, the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) held an election for its highest authority, and the Government and its allies picked Nelson Merentes (now the president of the Central Bank of Venezuela) as its candidate for rector. They were defeated soundly, however.
The retaliation came shortly after. On March 28, 2001, a band of outlaws, encouraged by the National Executive, took the headquarters of the University Council for two months, until the university community removed them by force. Their goals were for “university reform” and to “re-found the university” to align with socialism of the 21st century.
These efforts failed both on account of electoral defeat and community resilience. While the objectives remained, in the rector elections of 2004 and 2008, the official reform plan was rejected again, firmly.
Chavista government officials then realized they would not take control of UCV, nor the other national universities, via elections. It would require the key weapons of violence, financial encirclement, and infiltration with parallel unions.
In order to unleash terror, the 28-M Marxist-Leninist group (from the earlier university occupation of March 28th, 2001) was active, and they brought together other armed groups (La Piedrita, Alexis Vive) to act as shock troops inside the university campus.
There have been about a hundred paramilitary terrorist attacks in the last decade, upon UCV alone. In these attacks, the rector’s headquarters suffered machine gun shots and the main offices were burned, along with vehicles at the Plaza del Rectorado. Teachers and students were attacked with guns and were the victims of beatings.
The government has never prosecuted the aggressors or put them in jail, nor presented a public condemnation, despite the material damage and the danger t0 student life. On the contrary, government officials have protected them, while at the same time judicially harassing the rector, Cecilia García Arocha, and other university authorities.
Financial harassment has been another instrument for control. Since 2007, the universities have had the same budgets. The financial deficiencies due to the high inflation of recent years (Venezuela has the world’s second highest inflation rate) have been addressed with extraordinary non-budgeted grants, exclusively covering salaries expressly ignoring research and innovation needs.
These extraordinary non-budget grants come with restrictions on the educational institutions. Thus, the likelihood of receiving donations from private companies or international organizations continues to get lower, as universities become both dependent on and subordinate to government transfers and dictates.
The creation of parallel trade unions (puppets of the government forces) along with non-recognition of the genuine institutions of professorial representation, and the regulations that govern the relationships between the professorship and the State shape another piece of the puzzle. The FAPUV, founded in 1972 and with 40,000 members, has been ignored and mistreated by the government coalition, as have the associations of each university.
The authorization regulations — laws that govern the relations between the government and universities — in force since 1982, came to be ignored by the Government since 2003. From that point, the increase of salaries of the university sector occurred by unilateral presidential decree.
To give the appearance of consultation, the regime formed new, pro-government unions. Only after negotiations with those new unions were higher salaries proposed and approved recently. The agreement, however, includes the acceptance by those unions of the socialist project for all Venezuelan universities, which means the loss of the autonomy for curricula, opinion, thought, and research.
The Parallel University System
Along with these attacks, government officials have been dedicated to the creation of a wide network of “Bolivarian universities.” These have been of very doubtful quality, in which scientific and technical knowledge, and the notion of professionalism in the sense of a specialist who understands the modern world, were replaced by the unconditional agencies of the dominant ideology.
This indoctrination as education is not a new phenomenon. It was a common practice in communist countries where Marxism was installed as the State religion. This factor continues to be a dominant trait in Cuban education.
Government officials are proud of that they have incorporated this parallel system for nearly 1,200,000 students and more than 30,000 teachers. Their scientific research and their contributions to the development of the country, however, remain precarious.
Among higher education specialists, there is a conviction that these universities defraud most students, because they award diplomas of little value in the labor market. Rather, the fundamental intention of this “alternative system” of higher education is to weaken the traditional system, which has autonomy as its essential characteristic.
In Venezuela, the type of university designed for transmission, learning, criticism, and discovery of specialized knowledge is in danger of extinction. The regime wants to replace it with an apologetic character, where subordination, obscurantism, and single thought prevail. The communists understand education as a system towards submission, not liberation, but they have met with the courage of the university students.