Postcard — April 16, 2014, 4:32 pm

The School of Permanent Revolución

The university at the heart of Venezuelan protest

Last week, my wife and I passed through the dilapidated grounds of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. Our motivations for visiting her alma mater, and the embattled city where we first fell in love, were quotidian: an Illinois Medical Licensing Board request for some sealed medical-school transcripts and forms. In much of the world, such a task could have been handled over email or phone, but not in Venezuela — at least not right now. Instead, we had to journey to a mostly shuttered university in a veritable war zone.

The university had suspended operations a few days prior, and the sprawling campus was nearly abandoned. Trash was everywhere, with plastic bags, discarded bandanas (likely once soaked in Maalox or vinegar as a precaution against tear gas), pieces of picket signs, and a companionless shoe giving testament to the sad events of recent weeks.

On a wall near the dean’s office, crimson graffito proclaimed THE REVOLUTION DIED WITH CHÁVEZ. I reflected fleetingly upon the message, then felt a flash of indignation at the defacement of the wall itself. The campus, a filleted chandelier of concrete and audacious asymmetry, was once considered an architectural marvel, and it is the lone UNESCO World Heritage Site built by Venezuelans. In the fifteen years since Hugo Chávez came to power, it has also played a crucial role as one of the country’s last great independent public institutions, and it remains Venezuela’s best argument to the world that it retains some semblance of civil society.

On this day, vandalism was the least of UCV’s problems. Its students have played a central role in Venezuela’s unfolding crisis, which has seen months of citizen protest. Across the country, street barricades have gone up in response to harrowing shortages of basic goods, accompanied by a pronounced rise in state suppression of the media and circumvention of individual rights. This is Chavismo, trying to hold on absent the legendary charisma of its fallen founder. Scores of people have died in clashes, and hundreds more have been arrested or injured. The university, which educates nearly 50,000 students, has been routinely forced to suspend classes and close administrative facilities. It no longer maintains even a pretense of adhering to a fixed curriculum.

Students from many universities, along with other likeminded youths, have come to represent the speartip of the antigovernment dissident movement. They’ve also borne the brunt of the decisive and brutal reaction by the government of Nicolás Maduro. Protests of increasing intensity have been taking place on and around UCV’s central campus since early February. They were galvanized first by the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López, on February 18, and again by the March 11 shooting death of Daniel Tinóco, the twenty-three-year-old leader of an allied student movement in the state of Táchira.

Demonstrations at UCV carry particular saliency for Venezuelans, both because it is the country’s largest traditional institution of higher learning and because it is a public university — a rare place where Venezuela’s various classes work together peaceably, belying the divisive rhetoric of Chávez and his heirs, who have striven to cement a national narrative of perpetual class warfare and elite repression over the (now liberated!) masses. 

The most recent university closure follows a rash of paramilitary attacks that have terrorized the student body. On March 12 sixteen men from pro-government colectivos, their faces covered, entered a science building, where they beat and robbed several students. Five days later another assault took place, this time against an architecture facility, where eleven students were stripped of their clothing and fleeced of their belongings. Then, on April 3, another colectivo descended on unarmed protesters inside the university. Dozens of students and several journalists were robbed or beaten. Once again a young man was stripped of his clothes, this time outdoors and in full public view. In each case, university personnel accused the regime of, if not directly sanctioning the attacks, then doing nothing to stop them.

Maduro’s government has refused to speak out against the colectivos, maintaining that they are nothing more than peaceful community associations, and that they have been unfairly victimized by a “pro-fascist” opposition and international press. In truth, the government relies on fear of the colectivos to keep the protests limited to middle-class areas — the opposition is loath to operate in the slums, where most of the colectivos are based, lest they provoke an even more violent response. The National Guard may oppress with relative impunity, but the colectivos, unofficial and anonymous, are even less restrained, and their weapons are meant for more than just riot control.

The Maduro regime has likewise claimed that it is unable to protect the university, because Venezuela’s constitution grants UCV “special autonomous status,” and therefore prevents law enforcement from entering the campus. The groundwork for this status dates back to 1827, when a triumvirate of illustrious leaders, among them Simón Bolívar — Venezuela’s founder and patron saint, and the focus of its cult of personality until the rise of Chávez — drafted a series of statutes for a revamped university in Caracas. In contrast with the colonial-era religious institution it would replace, the Central University of Venezuela would be endowed with a secular character, an independent income, and full internal sovereignty, including the ability to democratically determine its own leadership and policies, unfettered by pressures from the national government.

Suggestions by university officials that Maduro might sidestep such impediments by stationing police outside the campus gates have thus far gone unheard. The regime has made clear that it will grant protection only if it is allowed inside, at the cost of the university’s traditional autonomy — a toll school administrators remain unwilling to pay. 

UCV’s autonomy is likewise limited by federal control of its budget. Since 2007, the government has made a point of cutting institutional funding every year, instead setting up a parallel system of “Bolívarian Schools” that are lavishly financed and directly controlled by the regime. These budget cuts have made it impossible for UCV to finance its educational needs, let alone maintain a workable system of internal security.

Pro-government colectivo poster outside the Central University of Venezuela hospital in Caracas. © Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

Pro-government colectivo poster outside the Central University of Venezuela hospital in Caracas. © Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

In one respect, the government is already inside, however. At the campus hospital, the flagship training ground for generations of Venezuelan medical students like my wife, the task of hiring and managing maintenance staff and other ancillary positions falls to the Ministry of Health. These workers have been organized into a colectivo, leaving a group of pro-government ringers strategically located at the heart of the university. One medical professor I spoke with told me that the hospital’s basement, where the colectivo operates, is similar to a military beachhead in wartime: belligerent and heavily armed. The professor was unsure whether the group was connected to the recent attacks, but he didn’t doubt that they would fight for the government if called upon.

The David-versus-Goliath dynamic between UCV and the Venezuelan government has remained consistent across history. Antonio Guzmán Blanco, an alumnus of the university and a cipher who during three terms as president starting in 1870 both modernized and brutalized Venezuela (much of the time while living comfortably in Paris), was the first to move toward making good on Bolívar’s dream of an autonomous republican university, definitively exorcising the last vestiges of church control over UCV and decreeing education at state expense to be a universal right. Soon after, in response to pro-democracy student activity, Guzmán Blanco became the first ruler to violate that autonomy, stripping the university of the land holdings through which it had previously funded itself, and making it financially dependent on the central government.

Decades later, one of his autocratic successors, Juan Vicente Gómez, a man Time magazine dubbed “The Tyrant of the Andes,” would face an out-and-out revolt by pro-democracy student agitators. The protesters managed to take control of the university and, with the help of a few junior military officers, the presidential palace itself. Throwing caution (and institutional autonomy) to the wind, Gómez called in troops to recapture the school and the palace, resulting in hundreds of deaths and arrests. UCV remained closed for a decade afterward, but the experience forged a new cohort of leaders, the “Generation of ’28,” who became the driving force behind Venezuela’s transition to democracy following Gomez’ death in 1935.

Since then, even as it has continued to play David to the government’s Goliath, the university has also shown how David can become Goliath. While its subversive climate has provided a consistent counterweight to governmental authority, it has reliably produced the elite of whatever group replaced the status quo. During the pre-Chavez era of centrist democracy, when Castroist-Leninist firebrands organized antigovernment activity from within the school, Venezuelan presidents Raul Leóni and Rafael Caldera, themselves both UCV graduates and former pro-democracy activists, responded by sending police and national guardsmen onto campus to quell student uprisings. Today, many leaders of those failed leftist movements are high-ranking members of Maduro’s government.

And therein lies the real risk posed by UCV’s unarmed students to today’s oil-rich regime. As products of the same cycle that has fomented disestablishment and forged future leaders for generations, Venezuela’s rulers keenly recognize the long-term danger of further radicalizing students by openly violating the university sanctum. Instead, they hope that a mix of pocketbook strangulation and third-party assaults will lead UCV administrators to surrender the school’s autonomous status, permanently crippling it as a source of dissent. In the meantime, the deadlock continues, with the regime waiting patiently at the campus gates, hoping to be invited in.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. Follow him on Twitter @DLansberg.

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  • Myshkin

    So disappointed to see my favorite progressive magazine publishing a piece of rightwing drivel that is rife with bias and inaccuracies starting with the assertion that the student groups are setting up barricades simply to protest shortages. As has easily been ascertained by reporters that have interviewed leaders of the groups behind the barricades, their declared goal is to remove the government from office, not an empty threat in a country where a short-lived military coup d’Etat followed upper and middle class protests in April of 2002. Far from benign, the protesters appear to have actually caused the majority of the 41 deaths that have occurred since the protests began, including the shooting death of nonpartisan Venezuelans who have simply tried to clear the barricades in their neighborhoods. It’s worth noting as well that the two most high profile opposition leaders supporting the current protests to oust the government are Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, two notorious supporters of the 2002 coup. Fortunately for Venezuela, the majority of opposition leaders don’t support these protests – which involve small, violent groups and by no means the majority of Venezuela’s students – and are engaged in dialogue with the government. With a little luck, the radical rightwing fringe of Venezuela’s student population will eventually tire of their pseudo May 68 delirium and the UCV as well as the country’s other universities will be able to once again function normally. In the meantime, it would be nice to see this magazine – normally so rigorous with facts and supportive of true social justice – publish a more balanced account of the situation in Venezuela.

    • Nic

      I believe you failed to read the article. In fact, you certainly could not have, having made such claims against it, e.g. that it is “rightwing drivel”.

      As a card-carrying liberal, proponent of “true social justice”, a yogi, a Venezuelan, a reader who reads articles before commenting on them, second generation descendent of Andean indigenous persons, child of a father who, with long since shattered hope, voted Hugo Chavez into power in the nineties, I’m glad the editors of “your favorite progressive magazine” did read the article before publishing it.

      Personally, I find it repugnant to accuse students of “causing the majority of the deaths.” In the first place, because you treat the dead flippantly, secondly because it is a baseless supposition. Should civil unrest come knocking at your door, the armed forces undermine your liberty, justice turn its back to you, I hope you’ll remember your senseless assertions and accusations.

      Please, point out, with evidence, one “inaccuracy” in the article. One.

      I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s also “worth noting” that Hugo Chavez not only “supported,” but headed, two failed coups. I only mention this as a supplement to your mention of two oppositions leaders “supporting the 2002 coup.” I’m glad to note that we may both agree coups are, to say the least, frowned upon.

      Ultimately, I can’t understand your thought patterns. Human lives have been lost, for the arrogance of a powerful few, and while citizens fight repressive powers, you criticize their right to? You’re not alone in ignoring the realities of a broken Venezuela in order to keep your loyalties intact. When I try to understand this though, only psychological explanation can account for it— for your addressing the Venezuelan situation as a “pseudo May 68 delirium.” Over time, it becomes difficult for people to let go of beliefs and commitments, especially when they were made at a young age. One’s sense of identity derives from the political stance they have taken and as brain matter loses its plasticity a mind once capable of change, congeals.

      Venezuela’s governor of the Amazon States, Liborio Guarulla, whose people in former times faced brutal persecution, spoke to Maduro and his party, saying, “The saddest is to arrive at power and do to the students what one once criticized former governments of doing, only you do worse.”
      ["Lo mas triste es llegar al poder y hacerle a los estudiantes lo que uno critico a los gobiernos anteriores, pero peor." -El gobernador del estado Amazonas, Liborio Guarulla.]

      Even the most well meaning of humans are corrupted by power and wealth. It isn’t the first we’ve witnessed it and it won’t be the last. Taking the long view of things, you see that power pendulums shift back and forth over long periods of time. One must do what one can to help, but not expect history to turn on a dime. Perhaps “your guys” will remain in power for some time to come, perhaps not. Perhaps Venezuela will sink deeper into an immoral abyss and economic sinkhole, and violence will see a yet higher death count than the one that has years-long placed Venezuela in the top Most Dangerous Places in the World. The story of the marriage between power and evil may only end when we, as a human race, welcome each distinct voice into a common room. I have faith, do you?

      • louisproyect

        Depressing to see Harper’s dishing out reactionary garbage like this.

        • Nic

          The story above is a true one. There are also true ones written from the perspective of Maduro supporters. The story most consistent to both sets of eyes is this one:
          -57.3% inflation
          -Population 30 million – 23,000+ murders per year.
          -Corruption index of 1.9/10, even LOWER than that of countries like Iran, Honduras, DR
          -Congo, Myanmar, Angola, Zimbabwe and Burundi, only narrowly beating Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. Out of 175 nations, Venezuela is 160th.
          - 93% impunity. I.e. only 7% of murderers convicted.
          - World’s most deadly capital city.
          - Total erosion of the independence of the three principal branches of government.
          - The takeover of ALL principal media outlets by the state.
          - The collapse of its nation’s infrastructure, including the decay of its very own golden egg – the fossil fuel sector.
          - Kleptocracy and nepotism witnessed on obscene levels.
          - Irresponsible and catastrophic slide into social and economic free-fall while sitting on the world’s largest fossil resources at a time of maximum value.
          -The HIGHEST INFLATION in Europe right now is under well under 2%, and many
          European nations are experiencing negative inflation. Reminder: Venezuelan
          inflation is at 57.3%, and it’s currency has collapsed.
          “Let’s now have a look at Europe. What has caused the Europeans to protest in recent years? Against what might they protest today?
          The LOWEST CORRUPTION RATING in Europe belongs to Greece, with a shameful 4/10.
          How did the Greeks respond in recent years? The people took to the streets and set Athens ablaze with months of riots, strikes and protests. The result? With assistance from the rest of Europe, severe economic austerity measures were imposed and the economy restructured. Economic contraction has been stabilized and slowed, and Greece is now in negative inflation. NOTE: Greece has olive
          oil, antiquity and a tourist industry. It does not have the world’s largest oil reserves.
          Here’s a relevant and fascinating correlation between transparency/corruption and socio-economic success. Read it carefully: the world’s 4 most SUCCESSFUL, SAFE and EGALITARIAN societies are all social democracies. In other words, they all did what Chavez promised he WOULD do, but failed so miserably and criminally to achieve. They all foster a secular, social morality which looks after all citizens equally. Because the people WANT IT. They DEMAND it. They
          CARE. Citizens CONTRIBUTE, rather than steal. Governments administer and serve, rather than dictate and indoctrinate. ALL FOUR are in Scandinavia, and one of
          them, Norway, is a fossil fuel economy. Between them, they occupy the TOP FOUR spots on the corruption index, as the world’s LEAST corrupt nations.
          -It would take about one hundred years for these four nations combined (with a similar total population to Venezuela) to produce the number of murders endured by Venezuela in just one year.” Sam McElroy

          I think louis, that you’re an extremist, as bad as any extremist, whether conservative or progressive. Did you ever consider you might be as gullible as any gullible person reading an extremely conservative publication, when you read your extremely progressive ones?

          Non-extremist liberals, like myself, have a certain amount of faith in Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch reports, corruption indexes and murder rates. Your straw man arguments and US-centric conspiracies, like those in response to myriad other global affairs you’ve also deemed yourself expert, don’t belong under my post, let alone this essay.

  • mcwar

    It would be be useful if this article were accompanied by some biographical information about Mr Lansberg-Rodriguez, for example his ties to the newspaper El Universal. He writes a weekly column for a newspaper which greeted the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez with the headline “¡Un Paso Adelante!” (One Step Forward!).

    • Nic

      Hugo Chavez planned and executed 2 failed coups.*

      Note: The above text written for Harper’s Magazine is what is known as an essay, in which writers extrapolate on their views of the world around them. El Universal is a newspaper that features the writings of writers. Mr Lansberg-Rodriguez is a writer, ergo being published in a newspaper (e.g. El Universal) is part and parcel of the job.

      *additional biographical info.

      • mcwar

        If you are arguing that El Universal, a conservative, business-oriented newspaper which supported the coup against Chavez, publishes a regular column by a writer who disagrees with its political position, you are either disingenuous or naive. Given the tenor of your reply to Myshkin, you are being disingenuous. This makes a reasonable discussion with you impossible. Good-bye.

      • tpx

        An essay one would expect to find in the Atlantic.

        • Nic

          Why?

          • tpx

            Capitaism

  • jayvbellis

    Sounds like Venezuela’s “people’s revolution” is descending in to something like Stalinism, just without the cult of the Leader. There is still lip service to the slogans of a people’s revolution, but real world freedoms like Liberty, progress in education, labor, education are brutally oppressed. These types of Stalinesque regimes seem to always find willing participants who support an Iron Heal oppression.

    Good news is that Anglo guys should find lots of pretty Venezuelan young Latinas that want to flee tis hell.

  • jayvbellis

    And all honest persons would acknowledge if not support the truth that Chilean patriot Gen Augusto Pinochet saved Chile from this terrible fate. Chilean Liberals, progressives, even honest socialist have freedoms and liberties in modern day Chile that are impossible for regular folks in Venezuela to even imagine.

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