CARACAS – Students at Caracas’ Simón Bolivar University (USB) haven’t had an exam in three months. Professors at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) stopped taking attendance. At the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB), protests and road closures count as excused absences.
As a large portion of the 3,500 people detained by security services in recent months, and with 18 college students among the 75 people killed in near daily street protests since April, you can’t blame young Venezuelans for having priorities other than school.
“We’re not thinking of how many beers we’re going to drink this weekend or whether we want to form a family yet,” said Andrea Guedez, a student at the UCAB and a face of Venezuela’s student movement. “We have a different reality.”
University students have played an outsize role in Venezuela’s ongoing demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro – in part because the political turmoil that sparked the protests has had an outsize role on them as well. Increased absences, suspended classes and postponed exams mean most college students here won’t graduate on schedule. Then again, what good is a diploma when you’re facing a spiraling economy, 20 percent unemployment, and stifling inflation?
“Nothing matters if the country’s reality doesn’t change,” said Daniel Ascanio, president of the students’ federation at USB.
To that end, university administrators and professors have, directly and indirectly, helped students get more involved in the protests. The Association of Venezuelan University Deans recently declared absolute support to the students’ fight, while the dean of the Metropolitan University marches alongside students, said Samuel Diaz, president of the school’s student federation. Many schools have suspended activities or decided not to penalize students for missing classes or exams. In others, like the Metropolitan, where classes and exams are still being held, the fight is very present on campus: Signs in hallways urge students to “leave indifference aside” and ask professors to join the cause.
And as thousands skip class to join protests, Venezuela’s student movement has evolved – from its traditional role of mobilizing in the streets to one that involves educating and encouraging others to work toward aims more typical of the established political opposition.
“This time we not only participate in protests, but also provide support in giving them political direction,” said Alfredo García, adjunct president of the UCV. He and his colleague, Rafaela Requesens, are, like Guedez, prominent figures of the student movement.
“Today we have understood that our role isn’t just to throw rocks,” García said.
Instead, García and others have turned their universities into discussion and planning spaces. On campus, for example, they offer psychological catharsis sessions and workshops on peaceful protest. They frequently give speeches on megaphones at marches – they’ve led three big ones – and they also host activities at communities that surround their schools.
Growing More Political
The student movement has had central roles in opposition fights before. In 2014, students were among those fueling demonstrations against high levels of crime, scarcity and inflation. But when some political leaders took control of the marches in 2014, many student leaders backed off.
“They didn’t buy it,” said Félix Seijas Rodríguez, political analyst and director of the Delphos poll. Student protests were protective of their independence and thought association with the political opposition would dilute their message.
But with the Democratic Unity Table (MUD) coalition of opposition parties now more unified in its response to Maduro, and with civil society groups more fully invested in the opposition’s cause, students have become less reticent to support the political aims. The student movement now coordinates its efforts on the streets with MUD opposition leaders and marches alongside them. They’ve also incorporated MUD messaging for their members to listen to, and they advertise the coalition’s weekly programs at their schools.
“We’ve understood the importance of coordinating with the political sector,” said Ascanio. Ties with political parties used to be taboo, he said. With 80 percent of the country rejecting the president according to polls, the student movement has come to believe that working alongside political leaders is the best way to advance the common goal of removing Maduro from office.
A Matured Student Movement
Many political figures who were recently part of the student movement are now working closely with its leaders. Miguel Pizarro, a young legislator and protest leader, who himself was in college just 10 years ago, attends student speeches and frequently visits their schools. He is one of several young politicians who have taken a role in bringing student movements into the opposition fold. Pizarro noted that university students have become more sophisticated and organized in the way they oppose the government.
“I wish I would’ve had (their maturity) when I was in their shoes,” Pizarro said. “Our methods were much more orthodox.”
In their actions during protests, too, students have become more sophisticated. Those who choose to go to protests as part of organized student movements are added to their university’s database, which leaders then monitor to make sure everyone returns safely. They also use the database to keep track of detained students, and organize themselves into color-coded protest groups depending on how close to the front lines, and exposed to physical danger, they are willing to get.
“This time it’s different because there are many more of us standing in the front,” said Miguel, an economics student who didn’t want to share his last name for fear of reprisals. Although government repression is now more violent, there are more people willing to take risks now than in 2014, said Andrea, a student who also declined to share her last name.
In the end, students’ role in this wave of demonstrations suggests young people are thinking more about what their country will look like if the opposition succeeds. Ascanio knows that his leadership role in the movement could lead to a political future, but said there’s more to why he and his peers have chosen to get involved.
“We’re not here because of that,” he said. “We’re here because we believe we can build a different country. We’re here for Venezuela.”
Krygier is a journalist based in Caracas.