Fighting for Political Control in Venezuela’s Main Campus

Anchored in the nostalgia of power, the opposition has fought fiercely to gain control of the UCV student movement. Although it’s a legitimate struggle to capture new leaders, the strategy pushes university students further away

"Libertad y autonomía". protest in 2007.

Photo: Viva la UCV

Political history in Venezuela has been traversed, in good measure, by the student movements of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). Since 1928, when a group of students led the opposition against dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, several generations of ucevistas have been the driving force behind protests against governments, both dictatorial and democratic ones, laying the ground for countless leaders who later on have driven the political leadership of the country. It’s not surprising that, for decades, political parties in Venezuela would look at the UCV in search of potential future leaders.

However, in recent times, things seem to have gotten out of control.

In an authoritarian context that gives little room for power and has hindered over and over any renewal, some political parties who oppose the chavista regime have seen the student movement as a place that guarantees representation and new faces in their ranks. While legitimate, the fierce battle for its control has left it diminished, subordinated to party strategies and more interested in national politics than in solving university problems.

The latest elections for the Federación de Centros Universitarios (FCU), a body that represents students in the university’s decision-making spheres, are a perfect example of this. Jesús Mendoza, of Fuerza Vecinal; and Sebastián Horesok, of Primero Justicia—in theory, both opposing Nicolás Maduro— ran for the FCU presidency. The result was a sad spectacle: for several days, both candidates accused each other of fraud, tampering with the system, trying to buy votes and to follow guidelines set by the party leaders. Both parties said their candidates had won and encouraged their followers at the university to defend their victories on May 25th. The official results are still a mystery.

Furthermore, there are some who believe the FCU has become an empty shell unworthy of this unbridled dispute, and the student movement, far from being the robust and confrontational force that led some of the main protests against Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, faces one of its lowest moments as the result of the mass exile of students. During the pandemic, according to data collected by the FCU in 2021, 40% of students deserted the UCV.

All of this generated huge discouragement for the student movement of the UCV, says Eduardo Valero, political scientist and professor of Political Studies. “At the moment, it’s impossible to think of a massive student protest, as the ones that happened before.” So, why do political parties have such an interest in controlling the FCU-UCV? “Because it still holds prestige,” he answers. “A president elected in democratic elections is the representative of the country’s number one university.” 

But in practice, Valero explains, the battle for the FCU has two different readings for the parties involved in the last elections. For Fuerza Vecinal, it’s the possibility to show a new trophy after taking ten municipalities in the November regional elections, while for Primero Justicia, which is going through a restructuring process, it’s a breath of fresh air for their discourse on backing the younger generations.

A Power Mirage

The autonomy of the UCV student movement wasn’t broken overnight. In fact, it’s been cracking for many years. “The disappearance of the Puntofijo Venezuela, with political and social consensus, threw us into the waters driven by a man’s will above anything else,” Valero states.

Since 2007, when young people from different universities led the campaign that defeated Hugo Chávez in an election for the first time, in the constitutional referendum, political parties have been meddling in student politics even more. It’s not a coincidence: many of those who led the insurrection against Chávez then went on to fill seats in a large portion of those same parties. The best examples are Juan Guaidó and Freddy Guevara in Voluntad Popular, Miguel Pizarro and Juan Requesens in Primero Justicia, or Stalin González in Un Nuevo Tiempo.

Part of the 2007 generation, several years later, in Caracas protest in 2016.

Photo: David Smolansky

Valero thinks this overestimation of what the student movement could mean can come from a sort of nostalgia for the 2007 generation, for what they meant to the country at some point.

Political scientist Nicmer Evans, who was part of the UCV student movement in the ‘90s, agrees with Valero’s opinion. “The analysis of national politics of what happened in the UCV was a foreshadowing of what was to happen in the country,” he recalls. “Maybe the old memory that we’ve been dragging for many years, has made some current political organizations think that because they control the FCU, they’ll get the chance to gain power in a few years.” 

Valero and Evans, who were rivals during their student years, agree that power has shifted with the passing years. “It was a spirited, strong youth, willing to take to the streets. That massive thing is gone,” Valero says. “However, the thrill is still there to be won over.” Evans adds: “It’s still a very important space to feel the reality of certain sectors in Venezuela.” 

What an FCU President Could Bring

Diego Scharifker was president of the FCU-UCV in 2010, when he was already a member of Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT). Although he assures it wasn’t very common in his generation, he says he saw how some students would give in to the strategies ordered by their political parties. “It’s always been that way, but politicians used to be more careful.” By “careful” he means that guidelines were suggested, not ordered.

“During a protest, they (UNT) wanted us to do something in particular, and we said no, and they accepted it,” Scharifker says. “They never threatened to expel us from the party if we didn’t do it. That never happened because Omar Barboza (the president of UNT at the time and current leader of the Plataforma Unitaria), was very respectful of the movement’s autonomy.” 

Scharifker’s experience is a reflection of what has been going on for several years in the UCV. “Political parties see these young people as leaders they should invest in, to then see them grow within the party. That’s what Un Nuevo Tiempo saw in me and in other groups of young people.” He explains that to support him, the party served as a megaphone, broadcasting announcements in the media. And during student elections, they also gave support with money, although he says that most of it came from their own pocket.

But not all of the responsibility falls on political parties. Looking for that same media exposure, Scharifker says that many students use the FCU-UCV as a boost for national politics. Again, the problem isn’t the goal, it’s the strategy. For Scharifker, as with many others in Venezuelan history, having a position as a student opened up doors for public positions, like a councilman for the wealthy municipality of Chacao. “If you only want to be elected to use the position as a springboard and not to solve the problems in the university, then you’re abusing power,” he says. “That takes away from the prestige of student representation.” 

Chavismo, the Left, and the UCV

While not as much as the opposition, chavismo has also been nurtured by UCV leaderships. Many of its current leaders and former ministers, like Jorge Rodríguez, Ricardo Menéndez, Elías Jaua, Jorge Arreaza, Héctor Rodríguez or Kevin Ávila, presided the FCU or had an important role in the student movements of their time.

Before chavismo took over in Venezuela, Fidel Castro’s socialism and communism were a fad at the UCV. After the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez ended in 1958, it became a stronghold for leftist thought. Once in power, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro broke that leftist tradition, to the point that it became extinct as an organized group.

Evans, who supported Chávez’s government until 2012, says that Maduro has no representation in the UCV because he didn’t go to the university. “He doesn’t know how important it is to get involved and to respect the education process of the university.” About Chávez, on the other hand, he says that he couldn’t go into the UCV because he had a primarily military background—although he had a Master’s in Political Science from Universidad Simón Bolívar. “His training was vertical, so he couldn’t comprehend the plurality there is at the university.” 

But in 1992, after trying to violently overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez, Chávez surrounded himself with academics, mostly of the UCV. One of them was Héctor Navarro, a professor who had signed along with other ucevista professors a proposal against the unpopular economic measures by Pérez. From Yare, where he was imprisoned, Chávez asked them to meet with him and the professors appointed Jorge Giordani to go. “Evidently, he (Chávez) knew of what we were doing at the UCV,” says Navarro, who now opposes the Maduro regime.

Once in power in 1999, Chávez included a lot of those academics in his government. At first, Navarro was appointed as Education Minister until 2001, and then as Minister for Higher Education (2002-2004). But the fact that he surrounded himself with ucevistas doesn’t mean that he gave any importance to having student representation at the UCV.

“During all my years taking part in the Council of Ministers, until 2012, I can’t recall one time the student elections at any university were brought up in the discussion,” Navarro says. “[Chávez] never saw the conquest of bureaucratic positions within student organizations as a need. His political concerns in that regard were others: how to make students feel like they were part of the revolution.” 

In a way he managed it: Chávez created new higher education institutions like the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela in 2003, or the Universidad Experimental de las Artes Unearte in 2008. While this increased the quantity of people enrolled at a university (therefore creating nice statistics for international agencies like the United Nations), it killed the student co-government and the democratic and participative spirit of the student movements, when he created the so-called “student militia.” 

Bulletproofing Their Few Squares

The fact that he focused on creating his own universities, or on making them part of his revolution, as Navarro says, doesn’t mean that Chávez ignored what was going on in the UCV. In 2003, for example, he created the Federación Bolivariana de Estudiantes (FBE) which gathered all the student movements who supported his government, with which he won the FCU elections that year, the only chavista victory in the UCV. On the other hand, Nicmer Evans claims that during his tenure he tried to enter the FCU “based on the nostalgia of the university left and with money.” 

“Those who organized spontaneously in the UCV and were approached by the government, what they immediately guaranteed was their future through a position outside of the university,” Evans claims. He adds: “They tried to finance violent groups inside the university, but also others who wanted to kind of practice politics when they called for electoral events.” 

Chavista friendly M28 during a strike in UCV against university authorities in 2011.

Photo: UCV

Scharifker comments that during the campaign for reelection as president for the FCU in 2011, which he lost to Juan Requesens, chavista groups pointed a gun at his head and his knee, among other threats.

On whether Chávez’s government financed student groups in the UCV or gave them “advantages” like bodyguards or cars, Navarro claims: “Yes, I heard those comments. What I did know was that, when it happened, they no longer had student leader positions, but they were working, as any public agent, in an official department.” 

Politics Without Parties

With the traditional left moved aside and so many people sick of all parties, some extremist groups that claim to go against the establishment have tried to emerge, so far with no success, in UCV classrooms.

In the most recent elections at the School of History, a sort of Frankestein list came up which gathered groups of neo-perezjimenistas, Catholics, Christians and Law School students, which presented themselves as anti-abortion and anti-gender ideology. While they made a lot of noise in social media, they only got six votes in the election, not even gaining a place as a substitute.

The winning ticket at the same school got 66 votes. Its leader, Angel Bertucci, is independent and claims that he’ll remain that way. “Political parties are the shadow that’s always been here,” he says, referring to the UCV motto: la casa que vence las sombras, the house that defeats all shadows.