The revolutionary student movement in Venezuela is divided into countless tiny organisations, often with bases in just one faculty or one campus. One of these organisations, the Popular Revolutionary Movement of Fire (MPR Fogata), in a statement issued in June called for "the revolutionary student movement of Venezuela to strengthen the forces in favour of unity". The statement argued: "Now we are presented with the possibility of deepening these forces and gradually making that [unity] a reality."
This could be viewed as the same optimistic sentiments that exist in sections of splintered revolutionary student movements in many countries in the world. However, in Venezuela there is a difference. Here the government is leading the revolutionary process and is actively participating in the process of forging unity in all sectors — not only of students — through pushing for and facilitating the establishment of popular councils: communal councils, workers' councils and student councils, among others.
The MPR Fogata statement argues that uniting the student movement "can only come about through the student councils", which need to be "broad, diverse and plural but with a class orientation. This last criteria is only possible through transformation at the core of the National Education Model that still exists in the majority of our educational institutions at all levels and by the people taking over the universities."
This is not only a statement of revolutionary ideals — these ideals are at the centre of a massive transformation led by the Venezuelan government. Through the social program Mission Alma Mater, which aims to dramatically expand and improve the country's higher education system, and proposed changes to the Organic Law on Education, the government will provide the framework for the people to do just that.
On May 24, President Hugo Chavez announced the creation of 28 new universities across the country as part of Mission Alma Mater. In its first phase, the mission will run from 2007-12. "There will be 11 new national universities, in addition to 13 regional ones, and four new technical institutes", explained Chavez, who also announced a pay increase for university staff and retirees and the payment of back pay owed by the state. Venezuelanalysis.com reported that the president also announced increased funding for university cafeterias, computers and an extra 10,000 scholarships, and the increase of all scholarships to US$100 per month.
Considered the most important reform, and certainly the one most bitterly opposed by the right-wing Venezuelan opposition, is the plan to abolish the internal entrance exams for universities, making it possible for any high school graduate to enter university. The exams have typically limited university to graduates from better-resourced schools or those who can afford private tutoring.
This reform also directly attacks the corrupt bureaucracy that is entrenched within university apparatuses, particularly of the prestigious four public autonomous universities. Under Chavez, many of the former government functionaries and politicians of the opposition have retreated to these bureaucracies.
One of the ways the opposition seeks to maintain control of the universities is through corruption of entrance procedures, allowing entrance to anyone who can pay. The price tag at the Central University of Venezuela is between 1.5 million and 5 million bolivars (around US$500-$1700) according to the June 13 edition of Diaro Vea.
Until now, faced with the control of the old universities by the corrupt bureaucracy, the government has focused on attempting to implement its revolutionary model of tertiary education through the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, which is providing access to university to tens of thousands of students from poor backgrounds. The current push indicates a shift from attempting to bypass the pro-capitalist bureaucracy in the education system to direction confronting those forces.
Chavez has also set up the Presidential Commission for Popular Power of Students, which is currently sending delegations to all parts of the country to participate in a series of public meetings. At these meetings, students and other members of the community submit oral and written proposals to be considered in the changes to the Organic Law on Education.
I was able to attend one such session in a public square in the city of Valencia in the state of Carabobo. It included both proposals and discussion on the new education law and also how to build the proposed student councils.
It was the fifth such session facilitated by Hector Rodriguez, who told Green Left Weekly that "the majority of the proposals concerned the integration of universities with the people and the democratisation of universities. [Universities must] understand education as being permanent, as being popular. [The discussions envisage] universities not as elite institutions, but as needing to open their doors. It explored the need to use studies to develop the country. For example, [students'] theses can be used by the communal councils for the needs of the community. Also, universities need to be more internally democratic." Currently university rectors and councils are elected by teaching staff and students, however one staff vote is counted as 10 student votes.
Community discussion about the role of universities has been stimulated recently by the opposition student demonstrations in support of the corporate television station RCTV, whose free-to-air broadcast licence the government refused to renew in May, although the station continues to broadcast on cable. This series of mobilisations revealed that not only private universities, but also the key public institutions are still largely strongholds of the opposition.
Revolutionary student forces lacked the coordination and confidence to match the opposition student marches. In late May and June, the revolutionary forces were only able outnumber the opposition through united mass mobilisations of the urban poor communities, workers and students, which pulled the mass popular support for the revolution behind the weaker student sector.
This was partly a function of the fact that opposition student leaders, who work hand in hand with top opposition politicians, have been receiving training and finances from US-government funded organisations such as the Albert Einstein Institution.
The situation on campus has sharply posed the question for the revolutionary student movement of how it is going to spearhead a campaign that, together with revolutionary staff members and the rest of community, is able to take over the universities for the revolution. Most revolutionary students will tell you that the new legislation alone will not be enough. The universities need to be changed form the inside.
Student union elections were held at the University of Eastern Venezuela (UDO), one of the four large autonomous universities, on June 15, in the immediate wake of the mass opposition student campaign. In these elections for the Central University Federation (FCU), the Left Socialist Unity election team won the presidency and three of the five electoral departments, taking control of the union branch away from the right. The right still controls the three other autonomous universities that make up the FCU.
The next big test for the revolutionary students may come as the result of another wave of opposition campaigning based on the universities. Former vice-president Jose Vincent Rangel warned on his television program on July 1 that the opposition planned next semester to reactivate student protests and protest around the issue of "university autonomy and social problems in the country".