In an effort to achieve wage increases, professors at 13 universities across the country have gone on strike, bringing university operations to a halt.
University strikes, normally led by professors and students belonging to the conservative opposition, have become common over the past several years in Venezuela, delaying scheduled classes and often causing students to graduate later than expected.
As the current strikes began at several universities last month, groups in Caracas led a large march throughout the city, during which Minister for University Education Pedro Calzadilla spoke.
In a statement released yesterday, Calzadilla encouraged the discussion of university conditions at a Labor Standards Meeting, which he described as "a new way to process and arrive at collective agreements." He urged those involved in the strike to reconsider their actions so that students' plans of study are not affected.
“Academic institutions need to be spaces of peace, dialogue, tolerance, and democratic coexistence,” he said.
In Mérida, A Hunger Strike and A Workers’ Group Aiming for Recognition
To protest the conditions of the ULA in Mérida, four students and one professor launched a hunger strike outside the office of the rector of the university. The strike, which began last Wednesday, uses the slogan, “Life for Education.”
Hunger strikes have been a common opposition tactic over the past six years to draw media attention to protests against the government. The most recent one in Mérida occurred in December to protest late President Hugo Chávez's trip to Cuba for a medical operation.
The protests have received a considerable amount of coverage on Globovisión, an opposition-leaning public news channel.
In a letter to the Minister for University Education Pedro Calzadilla, the students listed seven reasons “which forced [us] to make this extreme decision,” including the wages of the administration and staff, the allocations of student scholarships, the “increasingly chaotic” transportation service, and the resignation of certain professors over the years due to “salaries that are inconsistent with the work they perform.”
The students, who continue to maintain good health, have made no indication of ending their strike, though the professor was moved to the university’s Medical Health Center after showing signs of dehydration and hypertension.
Meanwhile, various workers from the ULA, who have been without work for the past five months due to the administration’s refusal to recognize them, continued protesting throughout the city.
“We’re 589 workers who are practically in the street,” dining hall worker Irene Alarcón told a community television network. “We’re not vandals, or savages, as some authorities have called us. We’re mothers and fathers with families, and we have our needs. They haven’t paid us for five months, and it’s just not possible to get by.”
She added that the university rector, despite traveling to Caracas to meet with officials and making various declarations on public news stations, has “at no point acknowledged us.”
“He [the rector] doesn’t want us to be recognized,” said Alexis Candela, the press secretary for a workers’ union. “I understand that this has to do with the budget, that they have to take this to the National Assembly. But we ask that he looks into his heart, and that he recognizes us with a contract, because the truth is that there are good proposals in Caracas to get us back to work through December, and to include us in the budget for the coming year.”
Students Conflict Over Course for Caracas’ Central University
Davis Marón, a humanities student at the UCV, once considered being a professor, but the meager salaries of even those who hold an endowed chair now make him uncertain.
“I want the fruit of my efforts to be valued in the future, and with the current salary of professors, I don’t see it. What’s my motivation to give classes to others?” he said.
Davis was one of around fifty students to participate in a demonstration on Friday afternoon, in which they painted themselves blue, the color of the university, and marched across the medical campus with signs calling attention to professors’ “unjust salaries.” The previous afternoon, the the Association of Professors of the UCV had voted to declare its strike as indefinite.
“The university should, above all, be aware of what’s happening,” Marón said. “This is a reality that hurts all of us, the students, the professors, the employees, the administrative personnel. I think that everyone should come together in this fight, because the government, the minister of higher education has refused to acknowledged what’s been happening … If we don’t fight, we lose the university.”
On another part of the campus, students in the department of education organized a counter protest, putting up signs calling for students to recognize “their own rights.”
“It’s an illegitimate strike,” said Jhonatan Sayago, president of the center for students of education. “It’s a strike against a fundamental human right, a fundamental constitutional right here in Venezuela, the right to education. The strike is not a legitimate way for the professors to demand their rights, because they’re violating ours.”
Though Sayago maintained that he was in agreement with an increase in salaries of the professors, he disapproved of their means of achieving it.
“The majority of the university population wasn’t consulted,” he explained. “Because of that, the effects are all negative. We’re missing class, we’re missing opportunities, we’re missing time. They’re calling for a strike, and the students here continue creating protest instead of learning. That leaves no room for any real change.”
While many professors have canceled classes, others, including Sociology and Psychology Professor Hector Villegas, are continuing with their regular schedule.
“The university authorities that we have now have had a broad involvement with the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) of the Venezuelan opposition. We’ve been able to see how, more than being the rectors of the university, they’ve turned into political actors who openly confront the government … they've become extensions of the MUD," he said.
Though Villegas lamented the lost class time of many students, he remained confident that the lasting effects of the strike would be minimal.
“The opposition in Venezuela spent the first five years saying that Chávez was black, that he was poor, that he was crazy,” he said. “Five years attacking him for his socio-economic condition. They thought that was enough to turn the people against him. The university authorities now are doing the same thing. They think that by playing with the collapse of the university, they’re going to overthrow the government.”
"What they don't realize," he continued, "is that governments don't fall with foolish, poorly-structured ideas. Governments fall with arms."