Venezuela's education revolution: deepening popular democracy

By Marcus Pabian

Members of the Venezuelan parliament passed the Organic Education Law on August 14. The law makes education secular; expands community participation in schools and universities; establishes participatory democracy across universities; bases the curriculum on socialist and ecological ethics; connects university graduates with the socialist development plan of the nation; guarantees free education from primary school to university graduate level; and aims to significantly increase the enrolment of poor people in the elite universities.

The pro-capitalist opposition in Venezuela announced it would sabotage the new law, claiming it will take away the autonomy of schools and create a totalitarian education system. Writing in the pro-capitalist opposition newspaper El Universal, Leonardo Carvajal and Fifi Pantin claimed that the law introduced a “totalitarian vision of lifelong learning”.

Signalling opposition plans to sabotage the new law, Octavio de Lamo, president of the opposition-aligned Chamber of Private Education (Cavep), declared: “Rejection [of the law] must be organised and agreed upon. There is the need for solidarity among headmasters, teachers and parents. We are organising nationwide networks which will be linked with public schools to counterattack the law and prevent government intervention.” Cecilia García Arocha, president of the elite Central University of Venezuela (UCV), promised that “universities will never be at the service of any government”.

The new education law has 54 articles and has been discussed in “street parliaments” across Venezuela over the past year and a half with university officials and the general public. Pro-revolution students demonstrated in favour of the new education law in June, calling for an education system to meet the needs of building “socialism in the 21st century”. They condemned the existing education system for reproducing the “capitalist production model”, turning people “ignorant” and not meeting the urgent need to build a socialist state.

The pro-capitalist opposition in Venezuela is desperate to hold onto its control of educational institutions as bases for their political movement to overthrow socialist President Hugo Chavez and restore a capitalist state. Ever since the April 13, 2002, mass revolutionary uprising against the opposition-organised coup against Chavez, an uprising which smashed the capitalists control over the military, the opposition has lost further control over the judicial, police and economic institutions in Venezuela. The new law significantly reduces the capitalists control of high school and university education by radically democratising the education system. The pro-capitalist political opposition to Chavez’s working people’s government currently dominate the administration of the older elite and autonomous, yet publicly funded, universities — giving them control over curriculum, budget, enrolment and the top jobs.

Previously the top university teaching posts were voted on by the university administrators, excluding students, lecturers and other university workers. Article 33 of the new law gives “equal political rights to the members of the university community: teachers, students, administrative staff, workers, and graduates”; the right to elect all university authorities by a “participatory and protagonist democracy”, and the right to recall any elected university official before their term expires. As a result, the new law threatens the opposition’s control of a source of economic privileges by demanding university budgets be decided with the participation of students and staff.

According to Antonio Castejon, director of university planning at the Ministry of Higher Education, the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), which is controlled by the Chavez government, has a budget of one-fifth the size of the opposition-controlled Central University of Venezuela (UCV), yet UBV educates three times as many students as UCV. While the opposition administrators at UCV cut its students’ free food budget by 16%, they awarded themselves the equivalent of US$42,000 in bonuses, according to  student organiser María Jose Gomez. Another student, Andreina Tarazon, pointed out that the UCV administrators had also organised an expensive retreat for themselves on the tourist island of Margarita, and replaced all their vehicles with new ones.

The opposition fears the Chavez government taking control of university admissions, as this will lead to greater numbers of students from poor families, with the democratic right to elect university officials. Ricardo Sanchez, president of the opposition-run UCV student federation, admitted he opposed the university losing its power to select its students. Yet, under that system only 4% of students at some opposition-run universities are from the poorest families, while up to 65% are from wealthy backgrounds. Article 35 of the new law aims for automatic university admission for all high-school students who achieve basic grades. The wave of students entering university will fill not only the old autonomous universities but also the 25 new universities being constructed by the Chavez government.

However, increasing student numbers is not an end in itself. The most fundamental aspects of the new law involve the shift to a new curriculum based on socialist and ecological ethics, supported by the integration of the grassroots communal councils with local schools. Article 15 of the new law states that the new curriculum aims “to develop a new political culture based on protagonist participation and the strengthening of popular power, the democratization of knowledge, and the promotion of the school as a space for the formation of citizenship and community participation, for the reconstruction of the public spirit”. This is to be done through involvement of communal councils in the running of local schools. In July, Chavez said Venezuela’s 30,197 people’s-power communal councils were “giving life to socialism” in local areas.

Furthermore, a broad educational community is projected in the new law. It will be made up of “all the fathers, mothers, representatives, students, teachers, administrative workers, and labourers of the educational institution ... [and] spokespersons of the different community organisations linked to the educational centres and institutions”. These people will form a “democratic space [with a] social-communitarian, organised, participatory, cooperative, protagonist … [and] solidarity-oriented character”, and take responsibility for carrying out “citizen education consistent with what is established in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”.

Referring to the pro-capitalist opposition to the new education law, Chavez said “they think of education as business and practices to train vassals of the [US] empire”. The Chavez government’s education revolution aims to put an end to the teaching of pro-capitalist ideas, ideas that condition Venezuelans to serve the interests of the imperialist-dominated capitalist system. “[We need] education for liberation, for socialism”, Chavez explained to an assembly of teachers in May. “The teacher must be a guiding leader … young people are the soul and essence of our future … we cannot allow them to be contaminated with the vices of the past, of capitalism, [of] selfishness.”