By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Critics are laying siege to government legislation aimed at introducing a new education law that is already halfway through the process of being approved by the National Assembly, which is all but entirely controlled by President Hugo Chávez’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its minor allies.
Opponents of the legislation including teachers marched from Plaza Venezuela to the legislature Tuesday in downtown Caracas.
They claimed, among other things, that the Bill violated Article 59 of the Bolivarian Constitution introduced at Chávez’s behest in 1999, his first year in elected office.
Also at issue was the rush with which legislators are pushing through the Bill setting out the far-reaching Education Organic Law. Sol de Santos, head of the Education Institutions Association in Aragua state, demanded a thorough debate, while Enrique Planchart, Principal of the Universidad Simón Bolívar, said the legislation should not be discussed “behind the public’s back.”
Marches and protest meetings were held in the states of Carabobo and Anzoátegui as well as elsewhere in the country. Students blocked a highway outside the University of Carabobo. No disorder was immediately reported.
In the capital, the Metropolitan Police – now controlled by directly-appointed Caracas “head of government” and key PSUV figure Jacqueline Faría rather than elected Opposition Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma – were out in some force to prevent the marchers from entering the legislative palace.
They were met by José Albornoz, who leads the minor pro-Chávez party, Patria Para Todos (PPT), who received a document from them setting out their objections to the Bill. PPT is also at odds with the government over what it sees as a lack of proper debate over an important item of legislation.
PPT argues that the first debate was so long ago, and in very different circumstances – the legislature in those days wasn’t dominated by the president’s supporters or Chavistas and included a healthy representation from the Opposition – that it’s no longer relevant.
What should be happening now, PPT says, is for the first debate to be held all over again. Other critics claim the Bill as it now stands actually has little to do with the text that was given first debate approved eight years ago.
Deputy Cilia Flores, a powerful figure in the PSUV who’s president of the Assembly had said that the Bill, which was approved a first debate as long ago as August 2001 but which only returned to committee – and then only for brief discussion – last week, would go to a second debate Tuesday this week.
The forceful Flores has a habit of getting her way in the chamber, but this time it was not to be. Deputy María de Queipo, who heads the education committee at the legislature and has insisted the proposals are subjected to public scrutiny and discussion to ensure it was understood and had the support of the citizenry, said the second debate would not take place as planned.
De Queipo announced that instead the text of the Bill would be released and the second debate would be held on Thursday this week, and in the meantime, legislators would not have any problem listening to other people expressing their views. Flores didn’t appear to have too much of a problem with her schedule being thrown off by two days.
None of this should be taken to construe that de Queipo opposes the Bill. On the contrary, she sees as a “legal instrument to set out the lines of the Venezuelan education and cultural model required by modernity and the revolution.”
The intention, she adds, is “to harmonize the expectations of the population in education and cultural material with the new revolutionary model in the construction of a state of rights and justice.”
This is quite the opposite of what the critics are saying. Among the most vocal of them are leading academics such as Cecilia García Arocha, principal of the biggest higher education institution in the land, the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). Lower down the education chain, teachers and parents’ groups have also rung alarm bells about the implications of the legislation.
None of this is surprising, given that the legislation is framed in terms of inserting the government’s version of what it sees as socialism into the curriculum and the way in which educational institutions are run, and to what purpose.
Opponents argue that the Bill also envisages imposing direct government control on schools, colleges and universities. This, they insist, would apply as much to private schools and universities as to state institutions – meaning, they say, there’d be no way to avoid what they see as the state’s planned over-reaching dominium in education.
Schools have long been subject to overall state supervision. But, traditionally, universities have enjoyed the status of autonomous institutions in Venezuela, leaving them largely free to set syllabuses of their own choice as well as admission standards for students and teaching staff.
Autonomy has also restricted the right of the state to intervene in university affairs. For instance, the security forces do not have the right to enter campuses without the invitation or authorization of the university authorities.
At times, this has contributed to problems on campus. Last year, nine people were wounded by gunshots as masked gunmen on motorbikes rampaged through the UCV as students returned from an Opposition march. Earlier this year, five cars were set ablaze in another outbreak of disorder instigated by thugs with guns.
The government has tended to point the finger at the university authorities, on the grounds that they are ultimately responsible for ensuring good order on the campus. The response from anti-Chávez academics is that the government can’t have it both ways, looking the other way in the face of threatening behavior by the harder elements among its supporters.
For all that, García Arocha has sounded the alarm that university autonomy is under threat from the education Bill. She claims that no less than nine articles of the proposed law are intended to undermine the autonomy as it set out in Article 109 of the constitution.
The Bill has moved rapidly up the agenda after the government abruptly withdrew a draft Media Crimes Law promoted by Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. National Assembly President Cilia Flores, a powerful figure in the PSUV, put an end on that, saying any such law was not in the government’s plans.
Once the proposed law is on the statute book, the Higher Education Ministry will assume control of admissions, “formation and entry” of teaching staff, lines of research, internal elections, and administration, among other things. Until now, all these have been decided by the universities themselves.
In those days, the mainstream Opposition was strongly represented at the legislature. Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), predecessor of the PSUV, and its allies wielded only a slim majority in the chamber.
All that changed when the mainstream Opposition, in a tactic widely questioned to this day, abruptly boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 2005. They shouted fraud even before the vote had taken place, and the result was that they’ve had no representation in the chamber ever since.
To date, Opposition parties have taken a back seat in the developing campaign against the government’s education plan. Moreover, the forums and meetings set up by critics of the Bill are taking place mainly in middle class districts of Caracas, where sentiment tends to be rather less than entirely sympathetic towards Chávez and his political project.
In contrast, the government’s argument that universities remain bastions of middle class advancement is said to find support in poorer barrios, where the president has much of his power base. Not for the first time, Chávez has evoked class issues in support of his cause.
Fausto Romero, a representative of the private education sector, claimed the Bill represented a “blank cheque” for the government’s ministerial education team, even though they’d failed.
Education Minister Héctor Navarro had “lost more than two million pupils during recent years and has a deficit of 5,000 schools,” Romero claimed. As the marchers gathered, Navarro told state television that the law wouldn’t affect university autonomy.
“I have the impression that a lot of people make an opinion and then read the Articles,” he said, condemning the critics as liars. He went on to invite students and public in general to read the legislative proposals, but critics say the text was only made public last week, so people haven’t had time.
The leadership of the Catholic Church in Venezuela, with which Chávez has long been at odds, has also come out against the legislation. The bishops’ misgivings focus on what they also see as an unseemly rush without adequate discussion either at the legislature or anywhere else, and a perceived attempt by the government to wring religion out of education in Venezuela.
Cardenal Jorge Urosa Savino, head of the Catholic Church in Venezuela, said it was one thing for the state and the education system to be secular, and another to eliminate religion entirely from what was taught.
God, he said, was “important for Venezuela” and could not be taken out of the schools. The constitution gave parents the right for their children to receive a religious education of their own choice if that was what was wished, he added. Venezuela’s population, at least nominally, is 98 percent Catholic.