VENEZUELA: Protesters force Chávez to rescind new law

President Hugo Chávez (pictured) has had a Christmas gift returned by protesters who appear to have forced him to rescind new legislation, including a university law reform, passed just before the holiday.

December's holiday season brought more for Venezuelans than a little cold weather and a few weeks of vacation. The government's early present, 20 unpopular legislative measures in 12 days, appeared to concentrate his political power further.

Chávez offered up a series of laws critics are calling the 'happy meal', including a university law reform. They were approved at 2:50am on 23 December, the last sitting day for legislators before the Christmas holidays.

The month of December, with the combination of little enthusiasm for political debate and the holiday spirit, seems to make it easier for harsh legislation to be introduced.

The university law reform added 111 new articles and several temporary dispositions to the outdated 1967 law. The reform gave the executive branch of government more control over several key areas of the public and private university systems and took away its constitutional autonomy. The resolution was being promoted by Chávez's supporters as a democratic tool that would give more participation to professors, students and workers alike.

Students, teachers and many parents thought otherwise and took to the streets the same day the legislation was passed, marching to the National Assembly. With no sitting politicians to hear their protests, they proceeded to the biggest public plaza in Caracas. There, according to witnesses, they were met with rubber bullets, tear gas and clubs by the national guard and the metropolitan police.

Despite injuries, the protesters scored a victory. On 4 January President Chávez appeared on national television to rescind the measure. His supporters appeared to save face by calling this "a clear proof of the democratic values" held by his administration.

A week later, on 11 January, the law was officially withdrawn by outgoing lawmakers in their last week before recently elected legislators were to start sitting.

Speaking about this reversal and what the future holds for Venezuelan universities, Hernán Castillo, a university student and Secretary General of the Federation of University Centres at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, told University World News that "it was certainly a surprise" but this action "is just another strategy to manipulate public opinion and show the world and the people of Venezuela his democratic façade".

Castillo does not see this as a victory for Venezuelan universities, but rather a cooling-off period. He says Chávez still has the legal power to promulgate without consultation and approval from the new assembly. In other words, he finds the rescinding of the laws "all misleading and manipulative".

Along with the university law, a hike in national sales tax was also abolished. In spite of this, the remaining 18 laws are still in place, among them an internet censorship law, one which allows the suspension of lawmakers who abandon their political party while on duty, and a special temporary law that gives Chávez full powers to promote new laws and decrees without the approval of the new assembly.

It is the second time the special legislative powers decree has been enacted by the president and the first time 26 new laws were decreed on the same day, without giving opposition leaders an opportunity to debate the issue.

It seems the Chávez government has made a Christmas tradition of announcing bad economic and political news. In late December 2009, Chávez announced the fifth monetary devaluation in 11 years, raising the official exchange rate by more than 100%.

According to Professor Victor Márquez, a member of the Federation of Association of University Professors, Chávez has a long history of waiting for the best moment to publish unpopular laws and avoid massive reactions and public protests against his unwanted laws. He said in July 2005 Chávez waited until the summer vacation period to appoint the new Organic Education Law, avoiding having to confront major resistance from teachers, students and parents.

Márquez added that this kind of action during the holiday season was part of an understandable political strategy that used a lack of civil resistance in concert with a legislative period ending.

On 18 January the opposition proposed a timetable for dialogue to discuss further the university law reform, inviting all parties involved to join in the debate and contribute towards legislation they say would make for a richer and more modern higher education sector.

This article depicts the usual anti-Chavez line. This is troubling, as Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution has brought some light to a very dark educational world saturated by corporate interests. The story you have included is so obviously linked to the standard opposition line, it really has little credibility among those of us who have worked in Venezuela.

Professor Peter McLaren,
Graduate School of Education and Information Studies,
University of California, Los Angeles

I would like to make some clarifications: first, the university law that was sought to be replaced dates from 1970, not 1967. This is important because it helps us to understand some of the weaknesses that make that law obsolete.

Second, the organic law of education, a legal instrument that is hierarchically superior to the Universities Act, was passed in 2009, not 2005, and it is this law which decrees equal electoral participation for all university sectors: teachers, students, and administrative and support workers (one person, one vote).

Finally, the main criticism of the vetoed law was its concentration of power in the higher education minister and its attempt to impose a single political and ideological orientation for higher education institutions, eliminating the plurality and academic freedom that must prevail in the universities.

Maria Cristina Parra-Sandoval