In the third week of October, there was another protest against the Chavez government in Caracas by thousands of students who were opposed to the proposed Constitutional reforms that were voted on last week.
In spite of the fact that these protests were often led by young people with ties to extreme right-wing parties, which in turn have direct ties to the U.S. Embassy and the opposition media empires, most of these students were sincerely expressing their desire to stop the Bolivarian Process. And their free speech was being protected. In fact, at one of the protests that week, when some pro-Chavez supporters gathered opposite the anti-Chavez demonstrators, the two groups started throwing stones and bottles at each other. Metropolitan Police of Caracas took measures to shut down the counter-protest even though those demonstrators were voicing support for the government.
Still, those outside of Venezuela should be aware that the anti-Chavez, anti-reform movement did not involve a majority of university-level students. Numbers and percentages are hard to estimate, but it would be surprising if more than a third of all people taking advantage of higher education (the total is somewhere between 1,200,000 and 1,400,000) were campaigning and voting against the referendum. Of those 1,200,000 plus students, about half (more than 600,000 students) are studying in conventional universities. Most go to elite public universities that mostly serve the middle and upper classes, and about 170,000 go to expensive private schools that are home to many of the most conservative protesters.
But this is only part of the equation, because just as many Venezuelans are studying outside of the conventional universities in the Mission Sucre program. This allows them to work toward university degrees by attending classes at night or on weekends in whatever local building – grade school, high school, church or community center – has space for them and their professors. Five years ago there were no Mission Sucre students. Today they make up half of the total number of people who are advancing themselves through higher education.
This huge explosion in education is transforming Venezuelan society. The new constitutional reforms were designed to promote more participation and equality of this kind, thus lessening the advantages of those with extensive family resources.
No wonder students at the elite institutions are worried about their futures.
Will their expensive private education be sufficient for finding employment?
Will they be displaced by students whom they perceive to be less qualified?
Will they be marginalized by those who used to be socially marginalized?
I first encountered Mission Sucre when I was visiting a run-down, three-story high school in the barrio of Antímano in Caracas in late 2004. At five or six in the evening, as the high school students were wandering home, the school building was filling up with people who had been laboring all day.
There is an image that still sticks in my mind: men and women were racing down to basement storerooms, grabbing dozens of huge Chinese TV sets, the kinds with 50 inch screens, and muscling them up to third floor. They wanted to make sure the video teaching materials were all in place so that their professors, most of whom were donating their time after going to their regular jobs, could start classes at the appointed hour.
This past year I learned that a large numbers of adults in our rural area of Monte Carmelo and Sanare are enrolled in classes through Mission Sucre. Among them are those who have already completed their training to be teachers and taken jobs at local schools, and others who are beginning a long and rigorous six-year program in integral community medicine physicians (see the article on Fidel’s WMDs).
The same weekend in October that privileged students were protesting in Caracas, three friends of ours, Ayleen, Luis, and Cirilo, invited me to attend the presentation of their “thesis” at La Casa de Cultura (The House of Culture) in Sanare. This was a requirement for those graduating in Social Sciences with a technical degree, which is achieved after three years of study and is similar to the associate degree earned after two years of community college in the U.S. After completing this degree, the students can continue their schooling for another two years and qualify for their “licenciado,” the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree at a U.S. university.
There were six teams that presented group projects in Social Sciences in front of a panel of academic judges in a large hall filled with over 100 members of the public. All the teams had been assigned to analyze the situation of particular barrios (neighborhoods) in Sanare or small caserios (hamlets) in the countryside, and then help these localities develop and organize communal councils. I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my neighbors there. Carmen, who lives across the street from us, was part of a student team that was diagnosing problems in Monte Carmelo.
Each team had to give an oral presentation, complete with slides and maps of the communities, and a description of the methodology of their analysis and their working relationship with the communities. Then they shared their recommendations and conclusions with the audience. Some individuals in the audience were members of the communities that were studied, and they offered commentary on the value of the research done by the students.
During the presentations, which averaged about 40 minutes each, it became obvious that I was watching a new model of education. The students had been asked to engage in practical work aimed at mobilizing people for one of the most important stages of the Bolivarian Revolution, the formation of “consejos comunales” or communal councils.
In the past year, the national government has encouraged a new kind of grass-roots direct democracy that is designed to bypass old inefficiencies and corruption at the state and municipal levels and deliver control to the people themselves. Neighborhood groups of families, up to 400 families in the cities, and up to 200 families in rural areas, are authorized to form communal councils which will decide and administer local affairs. They are entitled to receive government funds directly, give out loans and grants, and embark on the projects that they feel are most important for their communities.
Tens of thousands of the communal councils are already up and running all over Venezuela. In Monte Carmelo, at a May meeting I attended, fifty-one out of 125 families in the vicinity of the village were represented. Almost everyone present engaged in a lively dialogue as they outlined tasks for the months ahead and authorized funds for rebuilding a house for an old man who had been devastated by illness.
Some communities, however, are poorly organized and apathetic, and have been slow in forming councils. For this reason, five of the student groups decided that their major research commitments would revolve around working with these communities.
Our neighbor Carmen and her group chose a different kind of project than the other groups, since they chose to work in a community, Monte Carmelo, that was already highly organized. Their challenge was to collect more information about a problem that had already been identified by activists and organic farmers: the serious medical dangers posed by the overuse of
Years ago the cooperative farmers at La Alianza [see related article] noticed that they were poisoning themselves and their families and started farming organically. Some of their fellow farmers took notice and sharply diminished their pesticide use, too, but many others continued to believe that only heavy spraying would produce high yields from their cash crops. They still tramp through the fields of Monte Carmelo with spray cans strapped to their backs, and the wind scatters the residues over neighboring houses. The group’s task was multi-faceted, since it involved gathering and disseminating more medical information, as well as extensive interviewing to evaluate the opinions, awareness, and knowledge of the inhabitants.
Some of the other groups had a more elementary problem: How would they get people to attend meetings and identify local problems that they could address through a community council? Luis, Ayleen, and Cirilo went to Las Virtudes, a hamlet located more than an hour outside of Sanare. The village sits amid one of the most important coffee-growing areas in all of Venezuela, but has extremely high levels of poverty and a dearth of social services and educational facilities.
The team described the challenges involved in drawing people into meetings and promoting collective action, with special attention given to organizing energy groups (Mesas de Energia y Gas) that will ensure that everyone in the area has access to electrical energy for lights and gas (propane) for cooking. The three also told the audience about the ways they collected demographic information and historical material about Las Virtudes and then shared it with the community. In an introduction that described the spirit motivating all the Sucre teams, they wrote that they were helping the community councils because “a new era is beginning in the revolutionary process and we have to confront some great challenges.”
Now the “consejo communal” and related committees are up and running in Las Virtudes, and the people are forming cooperatives and applying for government grants and loans. Cirilo, whose regular job is working as a manager in a new coffee export company, says his Mission Sucre experience won’t be ending now that he has a technical degree. “I plan to keep studying further, but it’s even more important that we follow through on our commitment to the people of Las Virtudes. Now we have an obligation to keep working with them and their “consejo communal.”
The Bolivarian Process is urging students to share knowledge with their fellow citizens in a way that is virtually unknown at the traditional universities. Students at the elite universities are not asked to make a social commitment as part of their studies. Most likely they probably aren’t aware of the valuable work that Mission Sucre students like Ayleen, Luis, Cirilo, and Carmen are doing in their communities. This only underscores the kinds of division – by educational institution, by political persuasion, and by social class – that are causing turmoil in Venezuela today.
(Note: Minister of Finance Rodrigo Cabezas recently presented the national fiscal budget for 2008 to the Venezuelan National Assembly. He stressed that Venezuela is spending a much greater percentage of its budget on education than any other country in Latin America. For 2008, nearly 22 percent of the national budget will be directed toward primary and secondary level education, compared to 9 percent in 1998. This includes an increase in the funding of the social missions of the Chavez government, which will receive a total of Bs. 5.5 trillion (US$ 2.5 billion), an increase of nearly 62 percent from the 2007 level. These social missions include the national health program Barrio Adentro and the literacy and education programs Robinson, Rivas, Che, and Sucre, among many others. )