Cecilia Garcia and opposition students
(left), Luis Acuña (center), and pro-government students (right),
Mérida, May 21st
2009 (Venezuelanalysis.com) - A group of Venezuelan university students
and administrators, opposition political party officials, and employees
of the opposition television station Globovision marched to the Higher
Education Ministry on Wednesday to protest the government's 6% cut in
university budgets as part of an overall government spending reduction
amidst the world economic crisis.
In March the government of President Hugo Chávez reduced the overall
national budget by 6.7% in response to the worldwide drop in the price
of oil, Venezuela's principal export. Its package of austerity measures
prioritizes investments in the productive sector, maintains spending on
social programs, increases the minimum wage, raises the sales tax,
increases domestic debt, eliminates government ministries, and reduces
executive salaries and unnecessary spending in all public institutions.
As part of the national cutback in spending, the Higher Education
Ministry reduced the budgets of public universities by 6%. Minister
Luis Acuña sent a statement of intent to university administrators, who
decide how the budget will be spent, that employee salaries and student
services such as the cafeteria, housing, and transportation should not
Wednesday's march against the budget reduction was called by the rector
of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), Cecilia García, and
attended by right wing student groups, Greater Caracas Mayor Antonio
Ledezma and other opposition officials, Globovision employees, and
blocs of opposition party activists bearing shirts and hats with the
logos of their respective parties.
Turnout at the demonstration was weakened by disagreements over whether
marchers should focus solely on the university budget or also protest
the government's investigation of Globovision for irresponsible and
subversive behavior, which has generated a heated national debate in
The march ended up focusing largely on the budget, but protestors held
signs and wore clothing bearing the logo of Globovision, and chanted
their opposition to the government's investigation of the private news
outlet for allegedly threatening the life of the president, inciting a
coup d'etat, and breaking electoral laws.
When the several hundred marchers arrived at the Higher Education
Ministry, Minister Acuña received their document outlining their
objections to the budget reduction, and invited García along with
several opposition student leaders to hold an immediate face-to-face
discussion with a group of pro-government student leaders in the
As the debate began, García declared the situation an "ambush" and a
"trick," and walked out. She told the press that the debate on
university budgets should take place "in the university, not in
prefabricated debates oriented towards only one type of thought."
Pro-government student organizations said they did not join the
because the university administrators are corrupt and have repeatedly
denied students' demand for a more participatory process for decisions
on how to spend the budget.
"The rectors talk about the reduction of the budget but they don't
mention the 90,000 bolivars (US$ 42,000) the authorities gave
themselves in bonuses," said student organizer María José Gómez, who
was campaigning on campus "to inform [students] so that they don't let
themselves be manipulated."
"We do not know how the authorities spend the budget," said UCV student
Andreina Tarazon, adding that university administrators recently
replaced their fleet of cars and held a luxurious retreat on
Venezuela's Margarita Island.
According to student leader Oliver Rivas, 45% of the UCV budget went
unspent in 2008. "We know that that money, half of the 2008 budget, was
earning interest in university bank accounts, and it hasn't been
clarified what has been done with the money," he said.
The director of the university planning office in the Higher Education
Ministry, Antonio Castejon, pointed out that the Bolivarian University
of Venezuela (UBV), a free public university created by the Chávez
administration, has a national student body of 130,000 and a budget
that is one fifth of the budget of the UCV, which has a student body of
40,000. "This makes it clear that it is necessary to review what is
happening in the UCV," he said.
Castejon pointed out that Venezuela spends 7% of its national budget on
public universities, which is the amount recommended by the United
Nations Education, Science, and Culture organization (UNESCO), and has
significantly expanded the national student grants program called
In a press conference on Wednesday, Minister Acuña expressed his
support for more participatory university budget decisions. "We have
said that it is very good that the debate about the budget is held and
that it be discussed with workers, employees, and that it be a
participatory decision and not a petty cash drawer [for
administrators]," he said.
"The rectors of the country's universities are manipulating the
body and trying to make them believe that the student services and
employee wages will be affected," said Acuña.
The president of the UCV workers union, Carlos Suarez, declared the
union's opposition to Wednesday's march, and also advocated a
participatory budgeting process. "We said to the university authorities
that the budget must be managed with social comptrollership, and we
could be part of this auditing. This petition has been denied," said
1,200 police officers and firefighters were deployed to vigil
Wednesday's march, after unidentified masked men set fire to a bus and
set off several explosions on the UCV campus on Tuesday night. The
march proceeded peacefully and did not clash with police. In the past,
student-led marches have frequently been violent.