VENEZUELA: Revolution under attack

Orlando Albornoz and Ricardo Flores use the rescinding of the Ley de Eucacíon Universiteria (LEU) by Hugo Chávez as an excuse to launch yet another attack on Venezuela's president, claiming that the man whose first major undertaking after being elected was to have the people rewrite the constitution is undemocratic.

Under the law, students would have an equal vote in the election of university authorities; would be able to evaluate professors and participate in self-evaluation; would enjoy the right to freely express opinions; could access university administrative records; and would receive a range of services, including housing, transportation, meals, healthcare and monthly stipends.

The law would also establish a series of university councils that would be elected on each campus through a one-person, one-vote democratic system. Those entitled to vote would include students, professors, administrators, wage workers and other members of the university community.

LEU would replace the current university council, which is elected under a system that weighs higher authorities' votes more heavily and gives virtually no power to students or workers. The new law would also require universities to disclose all income and expenditures, making a public audit system in higher education the norm.

The bill was vetoed by Chávez not because of fear of protests - they would be minuscule compared to the Chávista counter-demonstrations - but because Chávez sought some amendments and PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) members were calling on Chávez to do that.

The reactionary sectors (or counter-revolutionary sectors) are always claiming that educational reforms are going to do away with autonomy when in fact university autonomy was confirmed by the 2009 Organic Law of Education, which refers to intellectual liberty, theoretico-practical activity, and scientific, humanistic and technological research.

However, autonomy is restricted by the Constitution and the law, as well as by the national development strategies outlined in Venezuela's national development plans and particularly by the principles of participatory and protagonistic democracy.

So what arguments can Albornoz summon up to describe as 'undemocratic' this attempt at extending the principle of 'of the people, by the people, for the people' into the university sector?

According to Albornoz, the legislation "cannot work" and will allow "the state to take over the whole higher education system". Moreover, for Albornoz, giving students a monthly stipend (contrast the hikes in student fees in the UK) is not designed to enable all to participate in what Chávez has described as Venezuela's giant school, but an attempt to make them "state employees, a kind of civilian army".

He goes on to claim that the government that is in reality creating 'mass intellectualism' in Venezuela is "openly anti-intellectual". When Chávez took office in 1998, there were just 600,000 undergraduate students. Now there are more than two million, making Venezuela second to Cuba among Latin American countries with respect to percentages attending university.

Postgraduate programmes have increased from 176 in 1989-98 to 351 in 1999-09. Venezuela is currently listed by the Unesco Institute of Statistics as among the countries that have most substantially expanded higher education gross enrolment in the Latin America and Caribbean region since the late 1990s, and it currently claims the eighth position worldwide following Cuba, South Korea, Finland, Greece, Slovenia, the US and Denmark.

In fact, about half of Venezuela's total population of approximately 28 million people have participated in some form of compulsory or non-formal free state-provided education. By 2007, 15.3 million Venezuelans (55% of the total population) were in some form of compulsory formal or voluntary non-formal public education.

Flores uses Chávez's response when the law met with opposition - "this law has a lot of strengths and a lot of deserves to be widely discussed" - to make a further slur on the president's credentials.

For Flores, this did not represent a measured and honest response to some people's misgivings (Chávez also added that as president he is "ready, when necessary, to rectify and call for debate and reflection"), but further 'evidence' that Chávez is a dictator.

Flores quotes the Secretary General of the Federation of University Centres who describes Chávez's decision as "just another strategy to manipulate public opinion and show the world and the people of Venezuela his democratic façade".

The new law is designed as a counter-measure to Venezuela's long-standing history of political repression on university campuses during the years of US-backed dictatorship, and represents a deepening of true participatory democracy as opposed to the serious shortcomings of representative liberal democracy as historically practised in Venezuela and the global North.

In the UK, we have a right-wing cabal of millionaires; in the US, a Democratic president driven by right-wing republicanism and other corporate interests. Representative democracy poses no threat to working people in Venezuela, the UK, the US and elsewhere - on the contrary; but it does pose a great threat to ruling elites everywhere, hence the need for a constant and sustained attack on Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution.

Critics of the revolution express the latent anxiety of those who fear real democracy, who don't trust the notion of social equity through popular action.

It appears that they are at a loss to know how to respond to an education system in which respect is accorded to learning; where learning is embedded within an ecology of knowledge as opposed to a monoculture of knowledge (by his own admission, Albornoz notes that "the best universities in Venezuela are heavily bureaucratic institutions based on teaching by rote learning"); in which the goal of education is not to produce human capital, but a critical citizenry, and not to create an entrepreneurial-competitive global elite, but social justice on a global scale.

When education is designed to serve the entire society and is not narrowly conceived as the enhancement of social mobility within the larger capitalist social order, it cannot be articulated only or mainly in positivistic, quantifiable standards.

Granted, the 2,000 newly created aldeas universitarias housed in educational institutions, prisons, military garrisons and libraries throughout all of the 335 municipalities in Venezuela might not count for much in terms of international standards of academic prestige.

However, when a central criterion of successful education rests upon the notion of improving the living conditions of the Venezuelan people, this might not be a standard that will help Venezuela's universities compete in the top 1,000 of world academic institutions, but it is a standard that world-class universities would do well to follow.

If we regard the Cuban Literacy Campaign as the greatest educational achievement of the past 100 years, then the achievement of an illiteracy-free Venezuela would surely count as a runner-up.

But do these standards matter to the critics of the revolution?

While I am sure our critics would not like to return to the days of the late fourth republic when universities and colleges were places that allocated according to socio-geographical criteria, such as place of residence (in which case applicants from los barrios pobres would be automatically excluded) or when the law faculties would demand strict dress codes (which would exclude from studying law those who could not afford the right clothes), it is clear that they find the goal of socialism for the 21st century a hard pill to swallow.

Clearly, by advancing the economic, social and cultural role of education as a part of local, national and regional endogenous development for the purpose of creating a 21st century socialism dedicated to both participatory and direct democracy, Venezuela is undertaking an ethical and moral re-foundation of the nation.

The functional dimension of public power has expanded from the intergenerational responsibility of the judiciary, legislative and executive power to the electorate by means of community and student councils (consejos comunales). And moving towards economic equality requires not only long-term structural transformation, but a re-scaling of power from the bourgeoisie and private managerial elite to those toiling in the barrios.

Contrast the Bolivarian initiative with a recent state appeals court ruling in New York State that the state was obliged to provide no more than a middle-school-level education, and to prepare students for nothing more than the lowest-level jobs.

Contrast developments in Venezuela with the partnering of neo-liberal education initiatives with social conservatives in the for-profit charter school movement in the United States.

Contrast Venezuela to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers unions in the United States, who overwhelmingly accept neo-liberalism's definition of democracy and view the world of learning and knowledge production through the eyes of US capitalism.

This re-imagining of the fifth republic as a social and inclusive participatory democracy stipulates moving from the exclusionary practices under the clientelist ancien regime. The old practices are giving way to a new landscape of consejos comunales (community councils) far removed from the days of the "caracazo".

* Dr Mike Cole is research professor in education and equality and director of the Centre for Education for Social Justice at Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln, UK. Dr Peter McLaren is professor of urban education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Thanks to Thomas Muhr for statistical information.

Related link
VENEZUELA: Academic freedom under threat

Mike Cole and Peter McLaren are right that government in countries like the US and Britain are too beholden to corporate interests. And I have little doubt that Venezuela before Chavez was some of sort of paradise. But when they use terms like "reactionary" and "counter-revolutionary" with a straight face, it is tough to take them very seriously.

The problem with all of these countries is not that the state does too little, but that it does too much.

For example, if the "revolution" is so wonderful, then why does it need to suppress dissent? Why are opposition media sources censored there? Why does Chavez have to blather on television for hours every day?

The answer was given by Thomas Jefferson, who said: "It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself."

But our lucky authors wouldn't know about censorship. Safely ensconced in their first world academic sinecures, they can comment unhindered on whatever strikes their fancy, however absurd.

Steve Foerster

If I were ignorant about the academic integrity of Mike Cole and Peter McLaren, I might suspect that their comments to be a piece of propaganda. I do not need any excuse to "attack" the president of my country, nor do I believe that he is not accountable for the policies of his government.

On the other hand, I dislike the colonial attitude of people living outside my country telling me how things are working in my own society. More so when these people assume the patronising attitude of the former colonial patrons.

I am simply a Venezuelan scholar and my views are not an attack, and, in any case, they could be seen as a defence of democratic values. I live in Caracas, not in Great Britain or in California. I maintain, and have written in the op-ed pages of national newspapers in Venezuela that, after 12 years in power, the current government has been and will be unable to solve the basic problems of this society.

I personally disregard as democratic a government rule by a person who expects to be in power for 30 years -- 12 already when next election takes place.

The law vetoed by the president was a legal mechanism to take political and ideological control of the higher education system. What we protest here is the following: "The law would (...) establish a series of university councils that would be elected on each campus through a one-person, one-vote democratic system. Those entitled to vote would include students, professors, administrators, wage workers and other members of the university community."

If this were to happen the whole ethos of the university would disappear. In any case, I personally would be interested if the two distinguished scholars writing about Venezuela were to suggest that their universities adopt this format for selection of their academic authorities.

Political protest in Venezuela is not "minuscule". It constitutes 52% of voters, and that makes the current government a minority government.

By refusing to sign the law approved unanimously by the National Assembly, the president simply acknowledged the power of the opposition.

To inflate enrolment in higher education for the benefits of political propaganda is not analogous with academic quality. Increasing enrolment without the proper learning resources is a recipe for failure and this is what is happening in Venezuela.

Most of the increase has gone into militarised and doctrinaire approaches to higher learning. Just recently a member of the Cabinet said that: "The political priority in the next two years is to enter secondary schools with political propaganda..."

Well, this is the whole problem: the Venezuelan government does not have an academic agenda, but only a brutal and primitive search for power, to keep this paper revolution in power, regardless of the negative effects it is having in this society.

One word on the UNESCO statistics. This otherwise formidable organisation does a tremendous job organising data, quoted all over. However, whatever data is organised by UNESCO is not collected by impartial bodies - it just gathers the information provided by national governments, and this is the case with Venezuela.

Governments claim all the time that UNESCO has certified that this society is "free from illiteracy". Whatever the achievements in that area, they were accomplished before the arrival of the propaganda machine which is the current paper revolution. Even the Minster of Education in Venezuela, when speaking to the National Assembly in February 2011, admitted rather naively that the educational problems of the country were "diabolical", meaning quite difficult to solve, and mentioned that illiteracy is still a problem to be taken care off.

The following paragraph would be taken as an insult to Venezuelans: "The new law is designed as a counter-measure to Venezuela's long-standing history of political repression on university campuses during the years of US-backed dictatorship, and represents a deepening of true participatory democracy as opposed to the serious shortcomings of representative liberal democracy as historically practiced in Venezuela and the global North".

This untrue. The governments between 1958 and 1998 were not US-backed "dictatorships". The fact is that the ruling elite currently in power in Venezuela was trained in the national universities and profited from the "representative liberal democracy" to do their graduate studies in the best universities in Europe and the US.

I would not comment on this statement: "If we regard the Cuban Literacy Campaign as the greatest educational achievement of the past 100 years, then the achievement of an illiteracy-free Venezuela would surely count as a runner-up". Neither would I dare to discuss the following one: "Venezuela is undertaking an ethical and moral re-foundation of the nation".

In both cases one has to be a believer to argue about the Cubans having achieved "the greatest educational achievement of the past 100 years" as well as to speak about the "ethical and moral re-foundation" of this society.

Both Cole and McLaren do not need my advice on these matters. Nor would I suggest to them to read the many scientific and technical analyses which are being done in my country, about the Chavez government, which many like me consider a total failure.

I have been and expect to be a critical sociologist in my country. As such I welcome views from foreign scholars, being me a member of the international academic community. However, I wish some level of objectivity because otherwise their views would be useless, seeing as part of the propaganda of a government which is not serious about improving the quality of life of Venezuela, but a kind of reality show trying to demonstrate that our current caudillo is a reincarnation of Simon Bolivar trying as well to accomplish the real independence of this society.

Orlando Albornoz

Was there no Venezuelan with sufficient academic credibility to defend this legislation?

Pedro Grazziani


We appreciate the fact that every government needs its critics, and debate over issues that impact on the health of democracy and democratic values is to be appreciated. Yet it is hard to discern whether Albornoz has resorted to a very common practice of deflecting criticism from people from Europe or "el norte" because such criticism reflects a "patronizing" and "colonial" attitude, or whether it is because they have roundly disagreed with him. Had we affirmed his position, I wonder if our status as "colonial" outsiders would have made much of a difference to him.

Certain influential Venezuelans in opposition to Chávez didn't have any qualms about receiving "colonial" advice (and millions of dollars) from US intelligence agencies when they decided to launch their failed coup in 2002, placing Pedro Carmona as interim president. I think it is fair, since Albornoz is engaging in virtual propaganda for the English-speaking world, that we are able to respond.

If we did not know that it was Albornoz making the remark that what keeps "this paper revolution in power" is "only a brutal and primitive search for power...regardless of the negative effects it is having in this society", we would have thought that the comments had come directly from a certain US President in a tight-fitting flight suit speaking from an aircraft carrier that "the mission is accomplished" or a 19th century British colonel in a pith helmet and sporting a handlebar moustache and monocle, making a reference to those troublemakers in India.

While Albornoz notes that our characterisation of previous governments would be an insult to Venezuelans, we wonder if his characterisation of the current Chávez government - which betrays an internal colonial attitude far more telling than that of our own commentary - would be received as insulting by those who have worked so hard on behalf of the current Chávez administration in Venezuela. Normally the term 'primitive' is reserved for those who have yet to arrive at a civilizing consciousness, and usually the term is racialised. However, in the case of Albornoz, we will do our best to avoid over-interpreting his remarks.

We are not trying to tell the Venezuelan people what to do. We are only supporting efforts already undertaken by the Venezuelan people. But not the people that Albornoz supports. It is true that by refusing to sign the law approved unanimously by the national assembly, the president acknowledged the power of the opposition. But not the formal opposition. He acknowledged opposition within his own ranks.

As for Chávez's rejection of the bill, we understand that he had not seen it before it came to the national assembly and heard protest from some Chávistas. Apparently, according to our sources, the ex-minister did not consult with anyone before presenting it, which is why Chávez vetoed the bill.

And finally, while it is true that the government in power was "trained in the national universities and profited from the 'representative liberal democracy' to do their graduate studies in the best universities in Europe and the US", that does not mean that members of that government need to be limited (as former students in "colonial" universities in Europe and the US) by what they learned in their studies.

Albornez wonders whether we would wish our respective universities to establish university councils as envisaged under LEU. Our answer is a resounding 'yes'. However, given that both the US and the UK governments are totally corporately driven, this amounts to wishful thinking. Twenty-first century socialism is developing in Latin America. It is our fervent hope that the seeds planted there take root globally, not least in the lacunae following the current revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East.

Mike Cole and Peter McLaren

It is a staggering accomplishment of doublethink that the authors now hope that Venezuela-style authoritarianism will spread to those North African countries who have or are shedding their dictators. Venezuelans need only look to Chavez's continuing support for Gaddafi's brutal regime to know what his intentions toward dissent really are. Talk about birds of a feather!

Steve Foerster