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.
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.