Lights and shadows

Katy says: The recent awakening of Venezuela’s student movement has been hailed in the media and the opposition blogosphere. For good reason: there’s lots to like in the...

Katy says: The recent awakening of Venezuela’s student movement has been hailed in the media and the opposition blogosphere. For good reason: there’s lots to like in the students’ approach, and the movement’s main figures have shown tremendous poise and a fresh approach to dealing with a difficult situation. But as with every development in Venezuela, there is a downside: one that I am afraid is being overlooked.

Analyses of the student movement have fallen prey, in my opinion, to several temptations. The first is the tendency to overstate its importance. University students in Venezuela have always been on the fringe. While their relevance cannot be denied, we must remember they are one of many groups in a society that is increasingly complex.

Let’s face it, for every university student in Venezuela there are three, five or ten other young people that were not able to get in because they didn’t have access to the economic and academic resources it takes to go. There is a world of difference between, say, an Engineering senior at USB and a Sociology major at LUZ, and between them as a “group” and the thousands of young people that wander aimlessly through the streets of our cities trying to cobble together a living. These differences point to an incoherence and a weakness in the movement that is inherent to its nature and limits its appeal.

The second troubling aspect is that the movement is likely to be short lived. Student leaders are here today, gone tomorrow. University movements are fluid precisely because being a student is in itself merely a step – all these kids will, sooner rather than later, move on, and we are not assured that the ones that come afterwards will be able to pick up their flags.

The important student movements of the past (the “Generación del 28” or the French students of 68, for example) left a mark, but their impact was usually not felt immediately. While the protests themselves shaped general opinion, the true mark of a generation’s awakening is made when that initial burst of energy is transformed into sustained participation in public life, through channels established or not. This process takes a commitment on behalf of the group, especially in society that is growing ever more authoritarianism.

Which leads me to the third troubling aspect, the movement’s exaltation of “anti-politics.” Time and again we hear of student leaders saying, to the sound of the country’s applause, that they do not belong to any political party and want nothing to do with them.

This is a mistake. If Venezuela is ever going to get out of this mess, it won’t be by embracing the quasi-anarchist positions extolled by all those (chavista or not) who reject political parties in general.

While the anti-political stance is understandable – Lord knows political parties have not done much to deserve the public’s trust – it’s also dangerous to embrace the notion that parties as such are in the way. While our political parties are far from perfect, it would have been nice for the student leaders to emphasize the need to participate in them and improve them from the inside. Yet so far, all we hear is a rejection of all political parties (old or new), a fruitless repetition of the “anti-political” stance that has been extolled by many since the mid-80s.

Back when I was in college, I was also a student representative who rejected politics and political parties, so I cannot look at the current movement in a cynical fashion but, instead, with a great deal of optimism and nostalgia, just like everyone else. But while I salute them, I try and put them in their right context.

The student movement is not going to get us out of this jam. They may eventually, after these kids have lived a little more, worked hard, kept studying and remained motivated. But when they extoll misguided values or when we give them excessive importance, we lose sight of more immediate and practical solutions, and in that way, the student movement may be hurting us a little.