In recent weeks, Venezuela has been roiled by student-led protests, and there’s no end in sight. At least 17 people have been killed, many of them university students, since demonstrations broke out in early February.
While the focus has been on the violent crackdown and the virtual standoff between the country’s new president and the young demonstrators, higher-education policies are a key part of the drama. The Venezuelan youths are part of a wave of student-protest movements that have erupted in Latin America over the past few years, in Chile, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Brazil, to demand greater government accountability and support for universities.
However, the reaction of the Venezuelan police to the protests has been the harshest in the region.
A group of United Nations human-rights experts recently urged the Venezuelan government to allow them to investigate allegations of “arbitrary detention and excessive use of force and violence” against protesters and members of the media. The petition cited allegations that protesters were beaten and “severely tortured” by the security forces.
President Nicolás Maduro, who was narrowly elected in April after his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, died of cancer, has vowed to continue his predecessor’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” which seeks to remake the South American nation along socialist lines. He blames the opposition for most of the violence, portraying the student protesters as “fascists” and “spoiled, rich kids.” He has the support of leftist governments in the region, as well as the main university-student federations in nearby Chile. The largest of these, the Federation of Students of the University of Chile, issued a statement last month condemning the protests.
“We reject any destabilization, food-hoarding, and coup attempts that seek to override the decisions of the sovereign people of Venezuela and to break with the revolutionary path they have chosen,” the group wrote. “We do not feel represented by the actions of the Venezuelan students, who have taken sides with the old order, in opposition to the path that the people have chosen.”
The Chilean group’s romanticized view of the Venezuelan government, and their vilification of the student-protest movement, are colored by their own struggle against right-wing policies left over from the Pinochet dictatorship—namely, the most heavily privatized higher-education system in the region. In reality, however, the two movements have much in common. Both are demanding greater government support for higher education and university autonomy. And both have managed to rally large sectors of society in support for their cause.
And the Venezuelan movement is not as monolithic as the government says. While a portion of the protesters are staunch government opponents, others are motivated by grievances of a less political nature. They include specific university-related issues, such as soaring crime on campus, poor housing conditions at state universities, and decades of overdue pay for university professors.
The current standoff is the latest and bloodiest in more than a decade of student-led protests against the government and Chávez’s higher-education policies. Opponents, including faculty and administrators, accuse Chávez of attempting to transform Venezuela’s universities into ideological breeding grounds in support of the government.
In 2010, student groups joined forces to protest the proposed University Education Law, approved by the Venezuelan Congress. The law would have expanded on the Organic Education Law of 2009, which gave the government the power to define the ideological focus of the curricula, control content in the media, and limit university autonomy. Following a raft of critiques by the main student and academic organizations, Chávez surprised his critics by vetoing the law.
Among Chávez’s controversial actions was the creation in 2003 of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, which is free and has open admissions. Critics of the university, which now has some 150,000 students and campuses in seven states, ague that it is a propaganda factory for the government. Chávez also drastically increased enrollment at the army’s National Experimental Polytechnic University, which now has some 230,000 students. Unlike the other public universities, both institutions are firmly under government control, and their students have filled the ranks of the pro-government demonstrations.
The result is a deeply polarized university community, which mirrors the schisms nationwide.
The latest protests followed months of strikes last summer at the main autonomous public universities and at a number of private ones. Students and faculty joined forces to demand more campus security, funding for student and faculty housing programs, and unfulfilled pay raises dating back to 1982. They had the support of the Federation of University Centers, whose members include the country’s five autonomous public universities. In some cases, the protesters went on hunger strikes for several weeks. That standoff ended in September after Maduro agreed to a dialogue.
However, tension flared again after the attempted rape of a female student at the public University of the Andes. The incident sparked protests—and was the flashpoint that escalated into the latest crisis.
It seems unlikely that the current student-led protests will succeed in forcing Maduro from office. More probable is that both the protests and the government response will continue to escalate, opening the way for more violence.