Monday, May 4, 2009

Chavista Student Leader's Murder and (more) Lies of the Venezuelan Opposition

The Bolivarian News Agency report today on the JPSUV and violence against the student movement (the youth wing of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for its initials in Spanish) was overshadowed by a predawn earthquake near the capital that measured 5.4 on the Richter Scale (no injuries were reported). All the same, this was a key story, one which illuminates both the intensity of mobilization in Venezuela today and the paucity of the opposition’s attempt to paint themselves as victims of a dictatorship.

The Story

Today, Luis Villalta, speaking on behalf of the JPSUV, read a prepared statement exhorting the Venezuelan Attorney General’s office to investigate the death of Yuban Ortega, a student militant from the Andean state of Mérida. Ortega died last Thursday at the hands of officers from the regional police corps.

Today, a series of political and cultural actions are taking place throughout Venezuelan cities and campuses, in memory of Ortega and against the culture of impunity that Villalta described as reminiscent of the (pre-Bolivarian Revolution) Fourth Republic. “We are standing and fighting,” the JPSUV announced, adding “It seems that the bourgeois state has not died yet, and that its repressive arm is still trying to stop us.” The JPSUV statement also warned the ‘rectores golpistas’ (inelegantly translated: coup-monger university rectors) that the Bolivarian Revolution will not be stopped.

The Historical Context

All this may seem odd to those of us who only encounter Venezuela through mainstream US media sources. Here in the United States, we are presented with the picture of Venezuela as a country tottering on the edge of totalitarianism, in which a romantic and battered opposition struggles against an omnipresent megalomaniac and his armed thugs. In particular, since 2007’s non-renewal of the private television network RCTV’s broadcast concession, we have been presented from time to time with images of a ‘student movement’ bravely fighting for freedom of speech and against state repression.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, one of the chief complaints I have often heard voiced by Chavistas is that the government is far too lenient on the opposition. While radicals and moderate Chavistas alike are proud of the fact that the Bolivarian Process has been a rule-bound, democratic and open one, they are frustrated at how the opposition has been able to manipulate the rules in order to create instability and maintain their positions of economic and social privilege.

The university system is a key case in point. While in the 1960s and 1970s the Venezuelan public university system functioned as something of a progressive institution (perhaps most notably during the administration of Rafael Caldera, when military officers were trained at Venezuelan Universities rather than the US torture academy – at the time known as the ‘School of the Americas’ – in Ft. Benning, Georgia), with deepening recessions throughout the 1980s and 1990s they increasingly became the exclusive territory of the rich. This in large part is due to the increase in fees, the general economic downturn and the barrier put in place by entrance exams. These factors formed something of a crypto-class credentialing process: with the less money, the burden of travel costs to university and even nominal fees became harder to bear; rather than studying for college entry exams, poor students were required to seek employment, and so forth. As a result, during Venezuela's lost decades, the poor were increasingly denied access to higher education -- and the social mobility it entails.

With the gradual change in the class composition of the University, so too changed the activist orientation of University students. We often (falsely) assume campuses the world over to be hotbeds of radicalism and revolutionary thought. All too often, especially today, this is not the case, but is rather little more than an overly-romanticized memory of the rebellions of 1968.

Thus, while students of the Central University of Venezuela were key in the anti-neoliberal uprisings of 1989 known collectively either as the caracazo or sacudón, by the time of 2007’s campaign to reform the constitution there were sizable blocs of anti-Chavistas violently clashing with pro-government student groups. (Most notoriously misreported in the US was the incident in early November 2007 on the UCV campus in which a group of opposition student protesters surrounded and attempted to burn down a building in which pro-government students were holding a meeting. In the struggles that ensued, guns were drawn by both sides. However, in the US, coverage was almost universally spun along the lines of ‘pro-Chávez student thugs attack pro-democracy students’ – a blatant flipping of Venezuelan reality).

A further complication to the student question in Venezuela has to do with ‘university autonomy.’ Due in large part to a history of police and state repression against (at the time, radical and leftist) student organizations, Venezuela’s legal code prohibits members of the state’s security forces from entering university grounds, even though they are, technically, public institutions. This has allowed violent opposition student groups to use campuses as ‘home bases’ from which they can strike out against the police, resulting in many staged photos which are then distributed worldwide.

Secondly, this question of autonomy has allowed university administrators themselves to turn campuses into islands of opposition power. One of the most obvious and egregious examples came in 2007 when, during the RCTV affair, the rector of UCV canceled classes and encouraged students to take part in anti-government protests.

The government's response to this institutional situation has been to create a series of parallel educational institutions -- from the misiones bolivarianas to the Bolvarian University of Venezuela. Much like the related communal councils, the strategy of the government has here been additive in nature. That is to say, rather than a frontal assault on the existing public university system, dominated as it is by the opposition, the government is attempting to make them obsolete by creating alternatives which are more universally accessible.

The Stakes

Recent violent events in the student scene in Venezuela should be viewed against the backdrop of an upsurge in violence against labor organizers and attempts to establish worker control of factories. They should also be considered against the all but complete lack of state repression against opposition actors who openly and actively have been seeking to destabilize the country (opposition Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma’s inciting of a rally last Friday to clash with police being a very recent case in point). What we see, then, is the in part necessary balancing act the Venezuelan state has decided to attempt in order to de-escalate politics in the country and to forge something along the lines of a ‘social peace.’

These events also point to ridiculousness of claim that the Bolivarian Revolution is entering something along the lines of a totalitarian situation. Last November, the opposition gained important institutional positions of power, augmenting their former footholds in the Universities and private media (while the Bolivarian movement has gained key ground in television, the print and radio media, not to mention international and cable-access sources, remain solidly in the hands of the opposition). Rather than a monolithic state and ‘official’ party (the PSUV), contemporary Venezuelan politics are as ever fragmented and antagonistic, with the divisions within the larger Bolivarian movement just as stark as those between Chavistas and the opposition.

Furthermore, with the continued darkening of the economic skies, the Chávez government has fewer resources to spread around, which has already brought about a series of difficult decisions. While they have thus far pledged not to cut social spending, they have still yet to ‘expropriate the expropriators,’ as self-identification as a ‘revolution’ would seem to promise. The government’s first anti-crisis plan has met with a high degree of skepticism on the part of radical chavismo, who see the plan as a significant moderation of the revolutionary process. Some commentators even argue that the plan does more to shore up the national bourgeoisie than actually contribute to the construction of Socialism in Venezuela. Paraphrasing Marea Socialista, a radical current within the PSUV, the government seems to be missing a tremendous opportunity to ramp up the speed of change presented by the global restructuring of the capitalist system.

In other words, the government may indeed be trying to please too many people here – or maybe just the wrong ones.

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