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.'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."'The New Regimen'
A small crowd gathered in the university parking lot earlier this month to board buses to attend a political rally downtown. All wore red, the trademark color of the Bolivarian revolution.
But instead of taking to the streets to protest what they don't like about their government, the students here march in support of it. The flier taped to the front doors of the main university building defined that day's rally as an occasion to stand up for Chavez and against "Yankee Imperialism."
"As Socrates said, we're all political animals," said Nelson Sosa, 26, a second-year law student. "But we have to support good politics, not ambiguous ones."
Sosa and other students said they would be free to protest against Chavez's government if they chose to, but they haven't chosen to yet. There is no sign of an opposition presence anywhere at the university.
University administrators say that absence does not represent an absence of democratic principles. Temir Porras Ponceleon, the vice minister of higher education and the vice rector of Bolivarian University, said those who make up the political opposition in Venezuela today are like those who defended a return to a monarchy after the French Revolution. The political system underwent a fundamental shift when Chavez took power in 1998, he suggested, and the opposition must adapt.
"My hope is that inside of the new political regimen, we develop a center, a left and a right -- but they all have to accept the fundamentals of the new regimen," Ponceleon said. "Different political tendencies can exist, and only time will tell how they will evolve . . . and still respect the new regimen."
If all goes according to plan, the millions of students graduating from Bolivarian University in coming years will be the ones largely responsible for determining that.
"The state needs professionals who share the fundamental basics of the republic," Ponceleon said. "That is to say, who share the principles like public education that is truly public, to guarantee the permanence of the republic."