For over 18 years, scholars of all sorts have seen their freedom eroded, bit by bit. Today, on our Student’s Day, we wonder: just how much damage has been done to Venezuela’s academia?

        “Autonomy is the institutional form of academic freedom and a necessary precondition to guarantee the proper fulfilment of the functions entrusted to higher-education teaching personnel and institutions.”
(Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, article 18, UNESCO)

Consider the case of Rafael Avendaño. In November 2016, he was expelled from the Medical School of the Universidad Bolivariana in Mérida for changing the channel. Literally. The TV in the common room had been tuned to VTV the main chavista propaganda outlet when he dared change it. “If you’re not in line with the rules of this establishment and the revolutionary process” he was told, “you know what to do.”

And just like that, he was gone.

These are just some of the findings of recent reports like El pensamiento bajo amenaza, published by the Universidad de Los Andes’ Observatorio Derechos Humanos (ODH-ULA) in collaboration with six Venezuelan universities, and additional research issues by Aula Abierta, illustrating the steady erosion of Venezuelan universities’ autonomy. They shed light on the regime’s modus operandi in creating parallel institutions, violating the rights to free speech and academic freedom while threatening and killing students, or illegally detaining them and their teachers.

It’s rather simple: knowledge, and free access to it, are deeply threatened in Venezuela today.

As disturbing as Avendaño’s, is the case of the two students who were detained by SEBIN after photos of naked women in labor chucked away in a waiting room of a government controlled hospital went viral.

“If you’re not in line with the rules of this establishment and the revolutionary process” he was told, “you know what to do.”       

Also, in November last year, UNEFA, the Armed Forces Experimental University, decided to open a disciplinary proceeding against Leonardo Isaac Lugo. His charges? “Offending public moral and traditions, expressing his opinion in public and acting against the interest of the country, the university, and himself.” Leonardo’s crime was wearing a bracelet saying “Capriles for president,” from Henrique Capriles’ 2012-2013 campaigns.

The regime is on a constant lookout for dissidents trying to fracture the revolutionary image of the utopian society, the most surprising of which was back in May, when we saw former Health Minister Antonieta Caporale, releasing data of the horrid reality in infant mortality and malaria; after years of silence. She was, of course, fired.

The ungrateful

“You’re all so ungrateful – how can you sign such a thing, against a government that has given you so much?”

A transcribed account, published by Aula Abierta, of a conversation between a psychology student and a clerk working for the public scholarship FUNDALOSSADA, describes how the regime leans on students’ precarious finances to intimidate them.

The issue arose during the 2016 unsuccessful push to gather signatures for a recall referendum a procedure clearly set out in the Venezuelan constitution. Without warning, the fund chairman, Luis Pérez, announced he would “withdraw” 896 already granted scholarships. All 896 had been granted to students who had signed the petition to convene a recall vote. The clerk told students the only way the decision could be rescinded was if students formally withdrew their signature from the Recall Petition.

“We will only consider those who choose to delete their signature,” Pérez said.

In other cases, students were threatened with losing their government subsidised food a vital lifeline to the poor if they refused to withdraw their signatures.

Again and again, the government’s line is clear: you must choose between your conscience and your belly.  

“Autonomy what is it good for?”  

Yes, that’s what he said. The recent statements of the Minister of Higher Education are yet another threat to academic freedom. “Autonomy should be used for creating people at the service of the motherland” he continued.

Before Chávez came to power, Venezuelan universities had a long history as houses of refuge for ideological dissidents. Not only a place for freedom of thought, but a place to hide after throwing Molotov cocktails. The police was legally barred from setting foot on campus. Indeed, a number of current top officials got their start as university radicals, shielded from law enforcement by their institutional affiliation. Now, the dramatic accounts of violence by paramilitary forces, National Guard and police forces on campus reveal a regime that has little time for such niceties.

The specially protected status of autonomous universities is set down in the ‘University Act’ (Ley de Universidades), a fundamental part of the historical structure of Venezuelan universities for almost 40 years. In the wake of Misión Sucre, though, the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela was created in 2003 and a birth-process of public universities with explicit socialist ideology began.

As a means of consolidating the chavista agenda in the realm of education and research, Misión Alma Mater was established in 2009, for “strengthening popular power and constructing a socialist society.”

Misión Alma Mater was designed to bring a mass of new students into the university system, without academic criteria, conditioning the way of thinking in students and professors.

An anonymous researcher for Pensamiento Bajo Amenaza adds that “Misión Alma Mater was designed to bring a mass of new students into the university system, without academic criteria, conditioning the way of thinking in students and professors.” Later, came the concept of “The Teaching State” (Estado docente), defined in “Ley Orgánica de Educación (LOE).” The government assumed the authority to regulate, supervise and hegemonically control the basic and fundamental structure of education.

The ideological control of thought and curriculum is especially strong within the so called experimental universities. Working at the National Experimental University for Security (UNES), the researcher tells me “I saw how students were forced to write poetry praising the work of president Chávez, or make sculptures of him to exhibit in the main hall. Even ‘El Plan de la Patria’ is a mandatory course.”

Parallel lines

Since 1998, the regime has been in a constant quarrel with reality. Their “branching out” in education has been extensively and aggressively subduing the aforementioned autonomy. The rapport by ODH-ULA refers to this as a ‘parallel structure’ described as:

“A parallel system created by the government to avoid formal structures and traditional institutions acting against their interests. For example: in Venezuela there is an Association of Rectors of Autonomous Universities (AVERU), but the government allowed the creation of the Bolivarian Rectors Association (ARBOL); two organizations with similar structure, but not the same objective, the second is designed to weigh the decisions and actions that AVERU can take, always favoring the ruling party.”

Between 2012 and 2015, the Supreme Tribunal rendered 43 rullings concerning electoral processes in both student and teaching bodies of autonomous universities, clearly violating the right “to make decisions regarding its internal government, finance, administration, and to establish its policies of education, research, extension work, and other related activities,” as stated in “The Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education,” signed in Lima, September 10’th, 1988.  

Withholding information – for the sake of La Patria  

On February 21st, Santiago Guevara, professor at Carabobo University, was taken into custody. He wrote a small piece for a Spanish newspaper calling out the “Cubanization” of the government and was subsequently charged with treason. According to Aula Abierta, 15 professors and 339 students have been detained arbitrarily between April and July of this year, during peaceful demonstrations.

The brain drain is not merely a question of bright people crossing borders. It’s also a regime terrified of people that know too much, and prefers to jail them for being thought-criminals. Students, researchers, teachers, and doctors pose the same threat: exposing truth.

The regime has been desperately trying to eradicate free thinking for 18 years now, and although current circumstances seem bleak, they have not been successful. People are still sharing images, writing the truth, thinking and asking questions. But at a great cost.

Since he was jailed, Professor Guevara has lost 25 kilos. And his clock is already ticking.

Kristoffer Toft

Kristoffer is in many ways an odd sight in Caracas. Many mistake his blond curls for a surfer, but all he is, is a danish “catire” trying to understand Venezuela.