Professors: From Riches to Rags

Professors in Venezuela used to do well enough to sustain themselves and their families. With their current wages, they’re a step away from starving

It happens in Zulia state, as it does in the rest of Venezuela: our professors are barely getting paid.

Photo: APUZ

Last August 13th, news came out about at least three professors from Zulia University who had died of COVID-19 without getting the proper attention in any of the healthcare facilities of the region. According to reports, there’s no running water at the University Hospital (the main facility for coronavirus patients) and people can be hooked up to an oxygen tank in the middle of the hallway because there aren’t enough beds. Until now and according to the regime’s unreliable numbers, 69 people have died of coronavirus in Zulia.

These three professors are also among a list of 36 teachers (or their family members) who, up until the end of July, passed away without access to medical services as a result of the budgetary asphyxia that the Venezuelan dictatorship is carrying out against higher education institutions.

Painful Contrasts

When Molly González cashed in her first professor salary, she didn’t hesitate to buy a car. It was 1990 and the new professors at the Universidad del Zulia (LUZ) had to work for six months before they were paid for the first time. So, with the money that had added up over that period of time, she also decided to move out of her parent’s house and rented an apartment for which she bought a fridge, a stove, and furniture for the bedroom.

A year later, she was getting married and starting a family, she had three children and she was able to travel with her family to the USA and Europe. Between 1990 and 1999, she had a new car almost every year. She was also a member of the Club Gallego de Maracaibo, one of the most prestigious in the city.

When she talks about it, she seems to be telling the story of an unreal Venezuela that did in fact exist, where scholars had salaries that matched their knowledge, giving them stability and even allowing them to save money for their future and their families.

We don’t have a salary, what we get today is 1% of what we got in 2001.

It’s been 30 years now. González is chairwoman of the Asociación de Profesores de la Universidad del Zulia (APUZ), she lives alone and her salary only allows her to buy meat, cheese, rice, pasta, some vegetables, and toilet paper: “I had the good fortune and the foresight to know that my house was worth a lot and about six years ago, when I realized I couldn’t afford to keep and maintain it, I sold it and bought a much cheaper property. I bought dollars with that money and, ever since, the rest of my food and daily expenses are paid with that.”

In July, the Federación de Asociaciones de Profesores Universitarios de Venezuela (FAPUV) sent a proposal to the National Assembly where they outline the return of the salary they had in the year 2001, which was over a thousand dollars. “The salary we’re proposing is a salary that has lost 99% of its value. We don’t have a salary, what we get today is 1% of what we got in 2001,” said Keta Stephany, the association’s secretary of Records, Memory and Information.

Many of González’s colleagues and researchers have had to quit their jobs to delve into other lines of work or the informal job market. González has a friend from the Engineering School of LUZ that took a bakery course, “because she couldn’t stand it anymore” and now she sells bread for a living. She’s holding off on these ideas because all she knows how to do is teaching and researching. “I don’t know how to do anything else, I’ve been doing this for 30 years.” 

A change of career might be close, though, since the savings from the sale of her house are enough for only two more months. “(A decision about my future) will come very soon, I don’t have much time left.”

An Insult

David Gómez Gamboa didn’t experience those times of prosperity for professors: when he began teaching in 2002, his salary was between $300 and $400. However, when he makes the comparison, he can only call the current salaries an “insult”.

González has a friend from the Engineering School of LUZ that took a bakery course, “because she couldn’t stand it anymore” and now she sells bread for a living.

“Professors today are alarmingly unprotected in the humanitarian emergency that the country is going through,” he says. “In my case, I’ve been able to carry the financial burdens thanks to my practice as a lawyer. But having family members abroad has also helped; in my family, as in many others, this has been very important to survive.”

Gómez Gamboa is a human rights activist and runs Aula Abierta, an NGO which documents human rights violations from within the university. From there, they’ve filed complaints to the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about the precariousness in which professors live as a result of low wages and its consequences.

“Many colleagues have had to leave their post to move out of the country, which we have documented from Aula Abierta. The research we’ve conducted shows the alarming brain drain in the academic community. Probably over 50% of professors, both from public and private institutions, have left the country looking for a better place,” he points out. 

González won the elections of APUZ in December 2019, being motivated by the “neglect in which LUZ is in.” But the coronavirus came in 2020, which made her start as chairwoman very atypical, spending a lot of her time denouncing and documenting the crisis professors are going through, especially in the midst of the pandemic.

“I think that we’re very close to the end,” she says. “What keeps me going is the hope for change.”