A Multiplicity of Movements: A Brief History of Student Struggles in Venezuela

From the Series: Protests and Polarization in Venezuela After Chávez

Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters.

Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters.

Since the beginning of the violent protests in early 2014, many observers, activists, and journalists have referred to “the Venezuelan student movement” as if it were a unified political subject driving current protests. The reality is far more complex.

Student movements have been a central political force in Venezuela throughout the twentieth century, often aligning against the state. Members of the student group known as the Generation of ’28 opposed the dictators Juan Vicente Gómez (1908–1935) and Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952–1958), and went on to established the political parties that dominated Venezuela’s Liberal Democracy (1958–1998). The next generation of student leaders rejected the violence of the formal liberal-democratic system that the Generation of ’28 helped to create and became active in the underground Left. By the late twentieth century, Venezuelan student activists were mobilizing against state violence, privatization, and the commercialization of higher education.

With the election of President Hugo Chávez in 1998, the dichotomous and unitary portrayal of “students against the state” lost its validity as student activists divided along political lines. Although the student Left fought for university autonomy throughout the twentieth century, after the election of Hugo Chávez, anti-chavista activists sought to fend off left-wing educational reform by making autonomy from the state their central issue. In 2001, with a sustained occupation of the Central University, progressive students embraced the initiatives of the Chávez government and parted ways with those who argued that the government undermined university autonomy. During the attempted coup d’état in 2002 and the petrol strike of high-skilled workers in 2003, it became clear that the academic elite supported the opposition to Chávez in large numbers. At that point, instead of reforming old universities, radical intellectuals administering higher education created the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezeula (UBV) and the decentralized classrooms (aldeas) of the Sucre and the Alma Mater Mission, which gave places to half-a-million new students.

Since the early 2000s, students in traditional and private universities, who often come from upper- and middle-class backgrounds and side with the opposition, have campaigned against the government. These campaigns coalesced around a number of issues and events: the refusal of the government to renew the license of RCTV, a commercial television station aligned with the opposition; the Constitutional Referendum of 2007; a campaign for the rights of political prisoners in 2010; and to challenge the results of Nicolás Maduro’s election in 2013. Some leaders of this movement have received support from the National Endowment for Democracy, The International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and other conservative think tanks representing the interests of the political and economic elites in the West.

The students who are currently protesting represent the more radical members of this broader student movement opposed to the government. Their critiques against insecurity, the deterioration of the quality of life, and inflation are not unwarranted. Yet they play on Cold War anti-communist rhetoric, declaring that the democratically elected government that encourages popular democracy is “dictatorial.” They also blame the government for the proliferation of violence that is often linked to economic, paramilitary, and criminal networks hostile to the government, and for an economic crisis partly due to market mechanisms out of its control.

Since 2007, student movements have also emerged among the supporters of the Bolivarian government. A handful of these student leaders—often studying at traditional universities—have entered the national media and state office in a number of elected and non-elected positions. A student movement has also mobilized at the newly created public university and community colleges, where students have been seriously underfunded in comparison to the established public universities. In 2009, the Office of Planning of the University Sector revealed that the state spent only 934 Bolivars per year per student at UBV and Misión Sucre, while spending 18,667 at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and 37,513 at the prestigious Universidad Simón Bolívar. Students aligned with the Bolivarian government launched a campaign to contest these funding disparities in 2009, which coincided with the decision of the Bolivarian government to cut the budget of all public universities as part of an effort to manage the growing economic crisis. Opposition students—generally in favor of the privatization of higher education—surprisingly declared themselves against austerity, and started violent assaults on campuses. Ironically, the Bolivarian students—those aligned with the goals of the Bolivarian revolution now led by the Maduro government—had to tone down their demands and support austerity, demanding not more public expenditure, but better management.

Thus, as it often happens in Venezuela’s politically polarized society, grassroots critique was silenced and subverted due to fears of antagonistic forces who sought regime change rather than reform, such as the protesters who are now out in the streets. Students who side with the opposition have offered no alternatives: they simply try to negate all achievements of the Bolivarian government. Their desire for a safer country and less corrupt political elite does not warrant burning medical facilities or fighting for the economic privileges of another section of the elite, against the redistributive and participatory social programs (misiones) of the government. Аt the same time, Venezuela’s higher-education reform is yet another confirmation that education on its own cannot do away with social inequalities. A deeper, structural change of the economy and the job market is needed alongside a qualitatively new and anti-utilitarian system of evaluation of all higher-education programs. This is one of the main challenges that the Maduro government needs to face. The Bolivarian students have continued siding with the government, but for many, this seems more and more like a decision to support the lesser evil rather than embrace a true socialist alternative.