Chavez Educates Masses at a University in His Image

Participants in a rally attended by students of Bolivarian University hand out postersof Chavez as they prepare to march in support of his government.
Participants in a rally attended by students of Bolivarian University hand out postersof Chavez as they prepare to march in support of his government. (By Monte Reel -- The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 25, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela -- As his students copied down their homework assignments, Jose Fernando Benitez reminded them why they should take the work seriously: There were their own interests to consider, but also those of President Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.

"The government is spending millions on you," Benitez said before the students in his communications class at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela spilled into the halls. "It is not an option to avoid reading and doing the work. You have an obligation to do your best."

The vast majority of students at the three-year-old university grew up in poverty. Now they are recipients of a tuition-free education. They are also part of a massive underclass that Chavez aims to empower through the social programs that have fed his domestic popularity. The school, the cornerstone of those programs, is aimed at educating millions and promoting the sort of social activism that Chavez says can help Venezuela's poor majority to overcome decades of oppression by the rich.

The government has already built a network of health and education programs. But Chavez has promised more, and to keep those promises from souring into disillusionment, officials acknowledge they will need a lot of industrious bodies, all tuned to roughly the same ideological wavelength.

Thousands of students expected to staff free public health clinics as physicians will get their diplomas at Bolivarian University. So will social workers slated for neighborhood literacy centers, and journalists whom the government believes are necessary alternatives to an opposition-controlled national media.

Even before its first graduation ceremony, the school has become the largest university in Venezuela. About 180,000 students are enrolled, but that number is a mere suggestion of its ambition: The government hopes the student body will grow to 1 million within three years, with more than 190 satellite classrooms throughout the country.

The government's political opposition, a group increasingly relegated to the sidelines of Venezuelan public life, sees the university as a thinly disguised propaganda factory that takes advantage of the country's most vulnerable citizens.

"Unfortunately, the government is using education as a political tool," said Julio Borges, an opposition leader running for president against Chavez in December's elections. "The Bolivarian University is just another vehicle, a bridge, to politicize the population."

But Venezuela's people are already thoroughly politicized; even the university's physical structures are potent political symbols. Most of the buildings, including those on the main Caracas campus, once served as headquarters for the state petroleum company, an institution purged of many anti-Chavez employees after a crippling strike against the government in 2002. Offices once reserved for executives who favored free-market economics are now decorated with posters of the socialist icon Che Guevara.

Aside from a few bulletin boards and scattered posters, the walls in the corridors are largely bare, an attempt to protect students from what administrators call the "mercantilization of education." There are no "for sale" boards here, and no traces of corporate sponsorship.

Instead, displays such as the one behind glass in the main building's lobby command attention. It's an oversize exhibit featuring motionless marionettes. Some are gathered outside a scaled-down Mercal, the subsidized grocery stores that Chavez has opened in poor neighborhoods. Doctors dressed in blue scrubs operate on a patient in a public health clinic. Hard-hatted maintenance men wearing Chavez campaign shirts sweep the make-believe streets clean.

And looking out over all of it is a plasticized model of El Comandante, sitting behind a desk on the simulated set of Chavez's weekly television show, "Alo, Presidente," wearing a red beret and military jacket. His prominent position on an elevated platform and his emphatically raised left arm suggest he's not just another puppet; instead, he looks more like the one pulling the strings.

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