The student movement in Venezuela: the young try to break free from the false alternative between Chavism and the opposition

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In Caracas on the 28th May student demonstrations began, which rapidly spread to various cities across the country[1]; the apparent motive was the decision of the government to close the television channel Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), which until now has been the main media outlet for the sectors of the national capital that oppose the government of Chávez. This served to ignite the social discontent that had been incubating within the working masses and the population as a whole, this time expressing itself through the student demonstrations.

Faced with these protests, on the 29th Chávez himself called upon the inhabitants of the shanty towns to "defend the revolution"; a little later, the "radical" deputies of the National Assembly (formed totally of deputies who support the so-called "Bolivarian revolution"), gave their full support to their leader's call for the inhabitants of the barrios to demonstrate against student movements. However the inhabitants of the shanty towns and the poor barrios - where Chavism is meant to dominate - did not mobilise and have not done so since. This shows a certain sympathy with the slogans of the movement which the media have treated as something secondary, such as the necessity to confront the problems of unemployment, delinquency, health and general poverty[2]. More than this, the lack of mobilisation by these sectors following the bellicose calls of the "Comandante" could express the fact that that the lying discourse of Chávez as the "defender of the poor" is not having the same hearing as he used to get with this sector of the population, which had placed its hopes in him as having a solution to increasing pauperisation. In the meantime, the President, his family and acolytes live the life of the real rich beneficences of power, just as the governments in the past have done[3].

As for Chávez and his followers who made this call, they mobilised the forces of repression and the armed gangs in order to intimidate and repress the students and those who came out of their houses and apartments to show their support. In the initial assault 200 students were arrested and various injured, many of these were young. While this pack of dogs attacked the protest, criminalising it and calling the students "lackeys of imperialism", "traitors to the fatherland", "well off children", etc, Daniel Ortega, the mandatory Nicaraguan "revolutionary", joined in these attacks whilst on a visit to the National Assembly, accusing the protesting students of coming from the richest classes of Venezuela and serving their "dream of stirring up the streets".

However, the repression and denigration aimed at intimidating the students only served to radicalise and spread the movement.

How to understand this student movement?

In order to characterise this movement, we must pose the following questions: are these demonstrations another expression of the confrontation between the bourgeoisie fractions of Chavism and the opposition, which have dominated the political scene over the course of 8 years of Chávez government? Do they represent merely student protests about their own concerns?

We think that we have to answer both of these in the negative. This movement by an important part of the students, to the surprise both of the government and the opposition, has taken on a character that is tending to break with the sterile circle of the political polarisation induced by the struggle between bourgeois fractions, and is expressed in a social discontent that until now has been caught up in this polarisation. It is therefore transcending a merely student framework. We can see that:

  • It is undeniable that political forces of the government and the opposition have tried to use the movement to their on ends: the first pose it as a mere manipulation by the political forces opposed to the government, including North American imperialism; the second say it is a political movement of the opposition, since they share slogans such as the struggle for "free expression" and against "state totalitarianism", bourgeois slogans defended by the opposition which is trying to remove Chávez from power. However, the movement has tried to distance itself from political leaders and forces, as much the government as the opposition. The students have not hidden the political character of the protest, but they have made it clear that they owe no political obedience to the leader of the government or opposition. The statements by the spontaneous leaders of the movement have been clear on this aspect: "The politicians have their agenda, we have ours".
  • With this aim, the movement has given itself organisational forms such as assembles, where they can discuss, elect commissions and decide upon what actions to carry out: this has taken place at the local and national level. It was in these assembles, formed in several universities, where they discussed the aim of the movement and prepared the first actions, which were transmitted to the rest of the students. For their part, the students have organised to cover the costs of the mobilisations through their own means, through collections amongst the students and the public.
  • Another important character of this movement since its beginning has been that it has posed the need for dialogue and discussion of the main social problems effecting society: unemployment, insecurity, etc showing solidarity with the neediest sectors. To this end the students have called upon all of the students and the population as a whole, Chavistas or not, to take part in an open dialogue in the universities, the barrios and the street, outside of the institutions and organs controlled by the government, as well as those dominated by the opposition. In this sense, the students understood the need to avoid the trap set by the government, when the government proposed to discuss with the student adepts of Chavism in the National Assembly. The scheme backfired: other students mobilised, and, in a creative and audacious action, read out a document accusing the deputies of the Assembly of criminalising the movement, denouncing the Assembly for not being an impartial place for debate and posing their demands, abandoning the building, faced with the ire and astonishment of the deputies and Chavist students[4]
  • The slogans of the movement have taken on an increasingly political character. although the media, mainly the parts controlled by the opposition, have made the central slogans of the movement the "struggle for freedom of expression" and "stopping the closure of RCTV" or the "defence of the autonomy of the universities", the students since the beginning of the movement have defended openly political slogans: the end of repression, the freeing of the detained students and those having to report to police stations daily, solidarity with the 3000 workers of RCTV, against criminality, against poverty and for the need to "create a better world" etc.

In this sense the student movement that is unfolding is in a "latent" state, due in part to the actions of the government and opposition to control and constrain it. But it did seek to break with the schemas of the past student movements and expressed a social content, influenced by tendencies within it to express the interests of wage labourers.

Where did these characteristics of the new student movement come from?

The genesis of this movement is in the worsening of the economic and political crisis that is taking place in the country. An economic crisis that Chavism has tired to hide behind the enormous resources of the oil manna, which has only served to strengthen the new "revolutionary" elite's hold on power., whilst the rest of the population is progressively becoming poorer, despite the crumbs distributed by the state through the "missions". One of the main expressions of this crisis is seen in the incessant growth of inflation, which according to the untrustworthy official figures has averaged 17% over the last three years (the highest level in Latin America). In fact the increases in the minimum wage directed by the government are essentially due to the incessant increases in the prices of food, goods and services. The much publicised economic growth which has averaged a 10% increase in GDP in the same period is fundamentally based upon the increase in exploitation, a growth of precarious and informal employment (camouflaged under the guise of cooperatives and the government "missions"), which affects about 70% of the economically active population including the unemployed. All of this means that the great majority of wage labourers receive no legal social benefits and a high percentage do not even earn the official minimum wage. This economic crisis, the product of the crisis that is affecting the whole capitalist system, existed long before the Chávez government but it has been exacerbated over the 8 years of this government, leading to the progressive pauperisation of society[5].

Along with the constant increase in the cost of living and growth of precarious employment, we have seen the scarcity of food, lack of housing, an increased criminality which in 2006 cost the lives of 1700 Venezuelans, mainly young people from the poorest sectors, the re-emergence of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, which are the products of ill health and the deterioration of public services. We could go on and on.

This situation is nothing but the expression of the Chavist model of state capitalism, which has no other course than to continue attacking the living conditions of the working class and the whole population, just as previous governments did, accentuating precarious work and pauperisation, but this time in the name of "socialism".

Clearly the students are not ignorant of this situation, since the majority of them are from proletarian families or those pauperised by the crisis. Many students in public and private universities experience exploitation because they have to work formally or informally in order to meet the costs of their studies or part of them, or to help their family's income. Nor are the students ignorant of the fact that their hopes will not be realised in the future: the majority of small professionals that have come out of the universities in recent decades have been increasing proletarianised, as thousands of health and education professionals, engineers etc can testify. They have difficulty in earning more than two times the official minimum wage[6], while the deterioration of the social wage (social security benefits, etc) undermines the possibility of having a dignified life, even it you are one of the "privileged" that the government mouthpieces talk about.

Likewise, a good part of the youth protesting in the streets have seen the ravages inflicted upon their families and society, by the political polarisation introduced by the Chavist and opposition leaderships in their struggle for the control of power. They have been victims of the division of society and a weakening of ties of solidarity; many of them and their parents have been caught up in the networks of political polarisation, even becoming fanatics for one fraction or the other, losing all perspective. They have also witnessed the struggle of the ruling class and its use of the motto of "the ends justify the means", its unscrupulous lying and manipulating, the result of the decay of bourgeois morals.

Thus, the student movement, although arising spontaneously, it is not result of an "infantile disease", nor has it been created by hidden leaders; much less is it something arising out of the heads of the leaders of the opposition or the CIA, as Chávez and his followers have endlessly repeated. It is the product of a process of reflection that has been under way for several years within society, and particularly amongst the new generations faced with living in a society where there will be no chance of living a dignified life. Hence, it is no accident that the student protests have raised slogans with a clearly social content: the struggle against unemployment, criminality, abandoned children and mothers, poverty, but also against the lying, intolerance, immorality and inhumanity that are eating away at society.

These characteristics show that this movement has transcended the conflict between opposition and government and contains the seeds of putting the whole of the capitalist system of exploitation into question; thus it has unquestionably inscribed itself in the struggle of the wage labourers, of the proletariat. The means and methods that it has given to the struggle (assembles, the election delegates answerable to it, the tendency to unite, the call for discussion outside of the universities etc) are those of the proletariat in its struggles for the defence of its interests. Although in a minor and unconscious way, there is the tendency in this movement to express the interests of the working class, and this has pushed it forward.

Over the last few years there have been student movements in other parts of the world, such as Brazil, Chile, France, which have had more or less the same characteristics. In France there were protests and demonstrations led by the students in May 2006, against the government efforts to impose precarious work, which mobilised millions of people across France[7]. The student movement in Venezuela has many similarities with these movements. These movements show that the students in Venezuela are not isolated, but rather are expressing a process of reflection that is taking place within the new generations who are searching for a perspective, faced with a society that offers no future.

Dangers facing the movement

The student movement has unfolded in a fragile and uncertain situation. The pressures exerted by the bourgeoisie in order to control and put an end to it are very strong. Both the government and opposition are making full use of their party machines, material means and the media to do this. There is also the polarisation and division of society brought about by the government and opposition, which has an importance that cannot be underestimated. Nor can the intimidation and repression carried out by not only the official repressive apparatus but also that of the gangs formed by Chavism.

However, one of the most important dangers for this movement is democratic illusions. Slogans such as the struggle for "freedom of expression" or "civil rights", amongst others, even if by these the students mean the necessity to confront the institutions of the state that stand in the way of the struggle, are fundamentally expressions of illusions about the possibility of being able to have freedom and "rights" under capitalism; that it is possible (perhaps with another government) to improve democracy in order to be able to really transform it into something that would allow the overcoming of the problems gripping society. Democracy, with its institutions, parties, mechanisms (mainly elections) is the system that the bourgeoisie has perfected in order to maintain the system of domination by a minority over the majority of society. "Freedom of expression" is part of the totality of "democratic freedoms" that the bourgeoisie has proclaimed since the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, which have only served to mystify the exploited mass in order to maintain its class rule. All of these "rights" are nothing by the codification of these illusions. All bourgeois regimes can recognise "freedom" and "rights" as long as the capitalist order and the state that maintains it are not threatened. Thus, it is no accident that in the confrontation between the government and opposition gangsters, each of them claims to be the true defenders of the democratic order.

The struggle for the "autonomy of the universities" is another expression of these democratic illusions. It is an old demand of the university milieu which defends the idea that these institutions can be free of state intervention, ignoring the fact that universities and educational institutions are the main means for transmitting the ideology of the ruling class (whether of the left or right) to new generations and for training cadre for the maintaining of this order. This slogan, mainly put forward by the student federations and university authorities, tries to imprison the emerging struggle within the four walls of the universities, isolating it from the whole of society.[8]

Another danger facing the movement is the similarity between its slogans and those of the opposition, which unite the interests of those forces seeking to penetrate and control it, and enables the government to try and identify the movement with the opposition. The movement needs to delineate itself from and confront the opposition forces with the same clarity and vehemence as it has the government. If it does not do this it could be submerged into movements that in other countries[9] have been used to bring the opposition forces to power, whilst the fundamental situation (the system of capitalist exploitation) remained intact. The students need to understand that the opposition as much as the government is responsible for the situation we are living in, that the opposition acted as the stepping stone for Chávez to come to power, and that if they return to power they will attack the living conditions of the working class as much as Chavism does today, and that they are both bourgeois forces trying to defend the existing order.


This student movement, which we salute and support, has the great virtue of trying to break with the vicious and poisonous circle of polarisation, through putting forward dialogue and discussion through assemblies that decide what to discussion and in what conditions. This is a gain for the students, for the workers and for society as a whole, since it strengthens the real ties of social solidarity.

However it would be illusory to think that the students' struggle, no matter how brave and courageous it has been, is going to change the present state of things. This movement will truly bear fruit if it can lead to the spreading of the proletarian elements that it contains not only to the barrios, but even more importantly to the workers in the factories and in the private and public enterprises. This cannot be done through the unions and political parties, but only by inviting workers from all sectors and the unemployed to participate in the assemblies. In this way workers will be able to see the proletarian vein running through the movement. At the same time this will stimulate reflection and also the struggle of the proletariat, whose actions are indispensable for confronting the state and being able to attack the root causes of the barbarity in which we live - the capitalist system of exploitation - and to implement real socialism based on the power of the workers' councils. However, if it were to stay an ephemeral movement, subsumed in the inter-bourgeois struggle, it will be crushed.

The most advanced participants in the movement need to try to regroup in discussion circles, in order to be able to draw a balance sheet of the movement up to now and search for ways to strengthen the proletarian elements of the movement which though still at an embryonic state, are being deepened because they arise from the worsening of the economic and social crisis.

Independently of the future of this movement, something very important for the future of the class struggle has occurred: the opening up of a process of reflection and discussion.

The ICC,

July 2007.


[1] According to the Minister of the Interior Pedro Carreňo, on the first day there were 94 demonstrations throughout the country.

[2] "We do not want to struggle against our brothers", so declared a member of the communal council of the barrio of Patarse, to the East of Caracas, referring to the call of President Chávez to mobilise the barrios against the students.

[3] "Being rich is bad" Chávez endlessly repeats in his frequent media presentations, whilst the proletariat and his followers (in the majority the poorest sections of the population) are accustomed to living a precarious existence, the real aim of "21st century socialism". However, he and his family, along with the top level state bureaucrats, do not follow this motto. To illustrate this the French newspaper, Le Monde in June published a series of articles on Chávez and his government, under the title of "Les bonnes affaires de la famille chavez" (‘The business affairs of the Chávez family'), where they described the way in which the new rich of the so-called "boliburguesia" (Bolivarian bourgeoisie) live. These articles showed that Chávez has become an object of interest to part of the French bourgeoisie, who want to use the "Bolivarian revolution" and its fanatical "anti-Americanism" to its advantage.

[4] The students had to be escorted by police when they entered and left the Assembly, since the Chavist gangs were surrounding the building.

[5] According to official figures the government has reduced poverty from 54% in 2003 to 32% in 2006. However behind these figures there is state manipulation (principally though the prices of the basket of food), to make sure that the government's talk about putting an end to poverty by 2001 corresponds to the "reality" of the figures. Nevertheless at the same time there has been the increase in the number of "buhoneros" (street vendors). The increase in consumption registered in 2006 was due to the increase in public spending leading up to the elections, and not because of a decrease in poverty. The Andrés Bello Catholic University which has been tracing the levels of poverty for years says that it increased to 58% in 2005.

[6] About $300 according to the official exchange rate of 2150 Bolivars to the $, which amounts to less than $150 at the black market exchange rate.

[7] see "Theses on the spring student movements in France"

[8] A demonstration of this was the "assembly" held on the 22nd June in the basket ball stadium of the Universidad Central de Venezuela by the Federation of Centros Universitarios, with the support of the university authorities and opposition. This was a show in order to divert attention away from the real assemblies. Faced with this some students shouted the slogan "we do not want shows, we want assemblies".

[9] see amongst other articles, ‘Ukraine: the authoritarian prison and the trap of democracy'