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Chavez Educates Masses at a University in His Image
'The New Man'
Alejandro Padron is like a lot of the students here: 19 years old, from a poor family, who grew up loving sports more than books and never really thought of his long-term prospects until faced with the drab inevitability of a service industry job. He said he took entrance exams for the Central University of Venezuela, and -- like most of his friends -- didn't make it. He watched as some of those friends paid fees to take the tests over and over, and began to resent the hopelessness of it. College in Venezuela, he decided, was a racket only the rich could beat.
"You begin to invest in something you'll never have," he said. "Then you realize that it's just another way to keep you enslaved."
There was no question about getting accepted at Bolivarian University, because everyone gets in. It doesn't matter if applicants spent the past 11 years in prison for murder -- as did a 49-year-old law student who said he is eager for a second chance -- or if they're foreign tourists interested in social activism in Venezuela. Inclusion is the golden rule here. So Padron enrolled last year and decided to major in politics.
But when classes started, he had second thoughts.
"My first day was frustrating, because I saw a lot of people who were already ideologically formed -- you know, Lenin and Marx," he said. "I was like, 'What is that? It must be a religion.' " But he soon made friends with a tight group of young students, all frank idealists who said they were fully committed to the Bolivarian Revolution, a model derived from the legacy of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator. Whatever political commentary Padron can offer today, he said, he learned "with the help of my comrades."
"The goal of Bolivarian University is to form 'the New Man,' " said Padron, dropping a term coined by another revolutionary, Guevara, to refer to someone who is selflessly dedicated to bettering society. "The New Man is not a technocrat, but rather is proficient in various fields -- professional and technological -- and is completely focused on his community. He is a humanist."
Padron now immerses himself in his class readings. The Caracas campus's library, in the basement of the main building, holds a generous collection of political texts, the vast majority from Latin American authors aligned with Chavez's socialist vision but with a few titles from opposition leaders sprinkled in. Like Chavez, the library does not demonstrate shyness in proclaiming its distaste for the U.S. government and for the Bush administration in particular. A poster on the wall beside the checkout counter shows a mouse with fur painted with the stars and stripes of a U.S. flag; the mouse is caught dead in a trap. The American author with the most titles under his name in the political section is Michael Moore.
Padron and other students sat at an outdoor cafe on the campus grounds one recent evening, chatting long after the cashiers had locked their registers and stacked the rest of the chairs in a corner. Conversation turned to the United States, the country that Chavez has identified as his nemesis, the "empire" that he regularly taunts as an oppressor of Latin Americans. The opinions expressed at the table matched those of their president: The students said they respected U.S. founders and activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X but professed bafflement at what, in their view, was the apathetic regard for the poor at the root of free-market capitalism espoused by the United States.
"In the 21st century, it seems as if the people in the United States are asleep," said Cesar Trompiz, 19, a law student and a friend of Padron's. "It seems like they don't even know what's going on in their own country."
That won't happen to them, the students said, noting that they value community service over individual comfort. They're not sure exactly what they will do after graduating, but their jobs probably will be somehow connected to the public sector.
Critics of the university, however, wonder how the flood of Bolivarian graduates can be absorbed into the Venezuelan economy.
"When they get to the job market, I think they are going to be even more frustrated than they were before they got to the university," said Evelyn Rousseo, a retired high school principal in Caracas. "I think the long-term effect on the students is that they are going to feel deceived, that it was all a big lie."