David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
On November 3 the pro-government (PSUV) majority of the National Assembly approved a resolution formally requesting the government “create a commission of legal experts” in order to file suit against university professors “for damages to the Venezuelan state” (The resolution has not been published but a draft can be read here). It also calls for an audit of the autonomous universities’ use of state resources, including salaries for faculty and employees who are on strike.
The PSUV deputies also accused the professors of being part of a wider conspiracy against the government by “generating insubordination.” The agreement suggests that the strike is part of an opposition strategy, in cahoots with “foreign private universities,” so that students affected by the strike will feel pressured into leaving the country to study abroad.
Venezuela’s autonomous universities remain almost completely empty since the beginning of the school year as the main faculty union went on strike over wages. In addition the leaders of several public universities have stated that it would be impossible to start the school year because colleges have not received sufficient funds for basic operations.
The PSUV deputies argued in the floor debate that the professors have no reason to go on strike, because the government is making “extraordinary efforts” in order to provide universities with resources. The deputies say this is in spite “of the economic war and that financial blockade by international organisms against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
The national federation of professor’s unions FAPUV reacted to the Assembly’s agreement by asking the government not to fall into provocations and to continue the dialogue and negotiation process with the professors. FAPUV’s president Lourdes Ramírez suggested the National Assembly was covertly asking for an intervention of the universities by the government.
Ten of Venezuela’s universities are referred to as “autonomous” since they have far-reaching control over their curriculum, their finances, and the selection of university authorities. Since the 19th Century Venezuela’s universities have been a main site of the struggle against authoritarian governments and university autonomy has been a main issue in that struggle.
During the Chávez period they have been one of the most important sources of government opposition. Since the 2007 attempt to reform the Constitution, the government has repeatedly tried to gain control of them. This desire was renewed by the fact that much of the 2014 cycle of protests was organized by student groups from the autonomous universities.
In May of this year the government imposed far reaching control over the admissions process of the autonomous universities. In September the Professor’s association refused to sign a new salary agreement and have not return to classes. The new salaries would have a full time professor making just over $100 a month at the highest official exchange rate. According to the Universidad Central de Venezuela’s faculty union, the decline in compensation and opportunities for research has led over 700 faculty to leave the country.