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Radicalism Infests Venezuela's Universities


More than three quarters of the students at the Central University of Venezuela live in or around the city of Caracas. But for those who prefer campus life there are two attractive and inexpensive ($8 a month) dormitories in the heart of the University city. The women's residence is affectionately called Hollywood while the other, its male counterpart bears the name Stalingrad.

Like their World War II comrades, Venezuela's Communists have made their stand in the bowels of Stalingrad. Unlike their Russian colleagues, however, the University Communists have no tanks for defense. They need none. The barbed wire fence surrounding the University City and the autonomy guaranteed by the University's Charter suffice for protection. The charter stipulates that the University is to be run entirely by an internal, faculty-student council and national authorities (such as the Ministry of Education, the Police, and the Army) are prevented from entering the school grounds without a court order.

University autonomy is by no means a phenomenon unique to Venezuela. It is a practice employed to a certain degree throughout Latin America. The history of the idea dates to a student strike and subsequent convention in Cordoba, Argentina, in 1919. Protesting against the ancient and restrictive control of university life by the Church, the Cordoba students staged a noisy walkout against scholastic officialdom. The result was an independent charter for the school. The student congress that took place in Cordoba under the new grant cited the principle of university autonomy as the end of all educational reform.

In the following years, scholastic reorganization in most Latin American countries incorporated to some extent the tenents of university autonomy. The strong arm of dictator Juan Vicente Gomez, however, slowed reform movements in Venezuela. Not until the mid 1940's, under the moderate leadership of President Isaias Medina, did larger changes take place. The plans for the present network of Venezuelan universities as well as the principle of university autonomy were then established.

Freedom Disappears

With the failure of Venezuela's democracy in 1948, scholastic freedom disappeared. The Perez Jiminez regime carried out the projected programs of school construction and expansion, but the university system was run strictly by the Ministry of Education. The fall of Jiminez in 1958 resulted in the immediate reinstitution of the Ley de Universidades or university autonomy in Venezuela. Since then the government has protected strongly-if painfully - the sovereignty of Venezuela's colleges.

Although the Central University is the nation's oldest (dating from 1727) it sports an impressively new campus. Constructed between 1945 and 1955, each boasts more gimmicks than the last. In part the campus of the 11 Faculties includes a 1250 bed hospital, a 3000 seat auditorium complete with concrete mobiles, two stadiums a saucer shaped gymnasium, a botanical garden, and acres of multicolored murals.

UCV, as the Central University is known, is one of Venezuela's five state supported schools. (In addition Caracas has two private universities.) Its 18,000 students comprise slightly less than half of the nation's university population of 45,000. A normal course of study lasts five years (medicine six), and the degree received entitles the graduate to practice a profession in Venezuela. Undergraduate education as it is known in the United States does not exist here.

$20 Million Budget

Since 1957 UCV's budget has grown from $6 million to $20 million annually. But once this money has been awarded to the University, the Ministry of Education exercises no further direction on its use. The University Council exercises sovereign control over the campus and all that pertains to it. The 19-man Council consists of the Rector, the Vice-Rector, the University Secretary, the 11 Deans of the faculties, three students, one graduate, and a representative of the Minister of Education. All Council positions are elective and are the subject of energetic partisan politics. The elections are dominated by tightly organized student political parties.

The Communists, who have long been powerful within Venezuela's school system, are the strongest single group at UCV. Communist intellectuals have made a point of infiltrating the school's faculty where they can speak without fear of reprisal. The student body as well contains numerous trained Communists and professional students who work to mobilize fellow travellers. Famed for its Marxist teachings and pro-Soviet attitude, the school of Economics is cryptically called Moscow while the comparatively apolitical faculty of Architecture sports the title Guantonamo.

Notorious Communists

The Communists at UCV are a minority but, as always, their activities bring more notoriety than their numbers seem to merit. The cumbersome legal process necessary to enter the University has prevented the police from obtaining much incriminating material in their periodic searches. There is good evidence, though, that the Louvre's impressionist paintings, kidnapped while being displayed in Caracas' Museum of Fine Arts, travelled directly to the men's dormitory in the University City. Further, it is believed that the hijacking of a plush Venezuelan oceanliner earlier this year was plotted at the Central University. Terrorists have been traced to the Ciudad Universitaria time and again, prompting speculation as to how much fire power is amassed behind UCV's ivyless walls.

The Central University suffers understandably from a poor reputation as an institution of higher learning. Politicking, rioting, and bomb scares managed to keep the school closed for three months last year. Students who can afford it are more and more turning to Caracas' formidable, placid, and unspectacular Catholic University.

Popular or not, the Central University stands, in many senses, as representative of the nation it purports to teach. The school's political fanaticism (the Copei Social Christians and Accion Democratica are as active as the Communists) is equalled only by the spirit of the country as a whole. Extremists, it is true, revel in the University City's unusual degree of freedom but extremism is a problem endemic to the Venezuelan situation.

If the democratic process in Venezuela were entirely dependable, the fence around the University would be ludicrous. To a nation well versed in the loss of freedom, however, a wall to protect liberty of the mind seems natural. Venezuela's present republic must pay for the perfidy of earlier regimes. The autonomous university stands as a taunt to any government that makes the pretense of being a democracy. It is, in this way, antagonistic to democracy. But it is, in this same way, typically Venezuelan.

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