By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The social democratic party, Podemos – which once supported President Hugo Chávez but is now firmly and at times noisily in Opposition – accused the government of planning to take over Venezuelan universities, and was out to “criminalize” student leaders in order to justify this.
National Assembly Ismael García, who leads Podemos as almost the sole dissenting voice at the legislature, claimed that steps were afoot to provoke violence on the UCV campus and then heap the blame on Sánchez and other student leaders. He accused Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Assaimi of being behind the alleged plan.
García went on to say that student leaders such as Ricardo Sánchez, president of the Federation of University Centers at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas, had been sought on the campus by unidentified people bearing “long firearms” last Friday.
Sánchez makes no secret of his opposition to the Chávez regime, and in this is not alone among several leading figures of the student community. Last week saw yet another outbreak of violence on the campus when five cars were set on fire by masked gunmen.
At the time, students opposed to the government were setting off on a march against a six percent cut in state funding for higher education and other issues such as the increasingly besieged private sector channel, Globovisión. Like many of the more prominent student leaders, Globovisión is openly anti-Chávez, and the suspicion was that the gunmen were government supporters.
El Assaimi has held the university authorities responsible for what happened, and in a sense he’s trying to have it both ways, given that universities have long enjoyed autonomy in Venezuela. This restricts the right of state security forces to enter a campus without be requested to do so by the authorities. Ergo, if there’s trouble, it can be argued that’s their fault.
In raising the spectre of a government takeover of the universities, García was voicing a suspicion that it would seem is also harbored within the academic community.
“These people are out to nail us, one way or the other, and they’ll use the students to do it,” a weary mathematician told this reporter, very much off the record. “The last thing they want in the country is free minds and free thinkers.”
In the meantime, more moves were afoot against the university authorities. Last Thursday, the overwhelming majority wielded by Chávez’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) voted through a motion calling on the Comptroller General’s Office to investigate how state universities had spent their budgets during the last five years.
Precisely this same demand was made last week by leaders of so-called “revolutionary” students loyal to the president. They argue that the university authorities spend funds on the wrong things rather than on bettering the lot of students and university “workers” – among whom, it would seem, they don’t include their lecturers and professors.
The Resolution calling in the Comptroller General’s Office was duly published in the Gazeta Oficial on Monday. With that done, Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russián came under a legal obligation to comply, though signs are he isn’t going to have any trouble with that.
Russián has been an object of suspicion for the Opposition after “inhabilitating” or banning about 200 individuals from standing for election or holding public office. The great bulk of them hail from the Opposition, and they include some prominent names.
Both sides of the political spectrum regard the universities as a focus of opposition to Chávez’ brand of supposedly leftist authoritarian populism, not least because many students come from middle class and upper income backgrounds.
This in itself seems to be enough for the president to see the student body as part and parcel of a privileged “oligarchy” and its cronies whom he claims are still in control of the country even after a decade of his having been in power. Critics warn that he’s playing with what they call “the politics of resentment.”
It was not only Podemos that was kicking up a fuss at the Assembly. Patria Para Todos (PPT), a small party that supports Chávez but increasingly seems to be at odds with the PSUV, was up in arms about a Bill submitted to parliament last Thursday setting out a new Law of Electoral Processes.
The PSUV wants the legislation debated and voted through as a “matter of urgency” – though for what motive remains anything but clear. PPT rejected the Bill claiming that it blatantly violated the principle of proportionality and would “exclude” minority groups across the country if it became law.
PPT Deputy Simón Calzadilla claimed that the proposal had been discussed neither in committee nor the full chamber. Were the PSUV to flex their parliamentary muscle to ram through the legislation anyway, PPT would call for a referendum to get it thrown it out, he warned.
This is not the first time PPT has gone up against the massively larger PSUV. The previously warm relationship between the two parties begun to come asunder ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2006, when PPT accused the PSUV of hogging the selection of candidates for the pro-Chávez ticket.
Elsewhere on the Chávez takeover front, cattle ranchers in the Opposition-controlled state of Zulia declared themselves in a “state of alert” on Sunday, wa
rning that the government was preparing to expropriate yet more land and companies.
Chávez last week vowed to rid the country of every single Latifundio, as large land estates are colloquially known throughout Latin America. He has also seized control of about 60 oil field service companies, some of them foreign-owned, in his latest move to impose absolute state control over the all-important oil sector.