Post Chavez: Venezuela’s Shrinking Public Space

Upon taking office in April, few expected Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to deviate from the late Hugo Chavez. Predictably, the former bus-driver has stuck to his predecessor’s script with little exception.

ChavezThe overt vilification of global capitalism and the domestic private sector continue unabated in the face of increased shortages in basic foodstuffs and consumer items. Public spending has remained high despite troublesome economic indicators, and the new Venezuelan executive has wasted precious time in ratcheting up tensions with neighboring Colombia, accusing political elites there of attempting to destabilize his government. Needless to say, bilateral relations with the United States have remained tepid at best.

What has been surprising during President Maduro’s first three months in power however – both as a caretaker and formal president – has been his administration’s ability to decrease the already limited amount of public space available for opposition to the government within Venezuela.

More tellingly, the fact that this has been achieved without resorting to either a presidential decree or referendum (Chavez’s preferred methods) perhaps signals a shift in modus operandi for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), one in which long-standing opposition forums are quietly being bought out by the government and its supporters.

During his 14 year rule, Chavez was largely successful in centralizing political and economic power in the executive. He achieved this via constitutional reform which drastically expanded presidential powers, while simultaneously tightening the state’s control over the Venezuelan economy through widespread nationalizations of private businesses and personally staffing key industries with loyalists.

Even though political opposition remained, it was highly fragmented and inchoate for the first decade due to the overwhelming electoral dominance of chavismo, thus leaving the media and the autonomous university system as the principal remaining bastions of opposition to the Bolivarian revolution.

However due to recent events it now appears that the ability of these sources of public space to serve as forums for dissent is in jeopardy, as the government and its supporters have employed financial incentives to co-opt the final holdouts in an apparent attempt to neutralize these wellsprings of discontent.

The Final Frontier: the Airwaves and the Campuses

Contrary to the oft-repeated assertion that President Chavez solely dealt with critical media outlets through outright censorship and closure (as was the case with RCTV), the late commandante established domestic communication hegemony by both creating and promoting alternative sources of information (VTV, Telesur), or more effectively, by neutralizing the competition through regulatory means (Televen, Venevisión).

By the time of his death, the only remaining source of media that continued to be hostile to his government was Globovisión, undisputedly the most radical anti-Chavez network in Venezuela over the course of the past fourteen years.

The news that the sole remaining opposition media outlet had been sold to a group of Venezuelan businessmen in early May was greeted with concern by longstanding viewers, who feared that the change in ownership would also signify a shift in coverage.

After a meeting on May 22 between President Maduro and Juan Domingo Cordero, the head of the consortium, these fears were quickly realized as an attempt to moderate the network’s tone. The new management cancelled two longstanding programs while simultaneously refusing to televise a live speech by opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

This contrasted with the previous unlimited coverage given by the network to the governor of Miranda, prompting him to tweet to his followers that “the new owners are politically connected,” while adding that from here on out they should only follow his movements via social media.

Tellingly, the new ownership group appointed Vladimir Villegas, a former ambassador to Brazil and Mexico under Chavez and brother of the current Minister of Communications, Ernesto Villegas, to be the new director general of the network. However he resigned the post after a matter of weeks, citing a lack of journalistic independence in regards to programming and content.

Villegas has been temporarily replaced by a junta consisting of the new owners, who are moderating the critical editorial line in the hopes of renewing their broadcasting license in 2015, when it is slated to be reviewed by the national telecom regulatory body, CONATEL.

The buyout of Globovisión effectively left Venezuela’s autonomous university system–which accounts for 18 universities across the country–as the last remaining pocket of public opposition to the government. Yet since the recent executive succession, it has also become embroiled in a dispute with the national government.

Beginning in April, various autonomous universities experienced walkouts and protests by faculty members belonging to the oldest post-secondary teaching union, Federación de Asociaciones de Profesores Universitarios de Venezuela (FAPUV). More recently, the union decided on June 6 to launch a nationwide strike at 13 different universities, effectively suspending classes mid-semester until further notice.

The primary grievance of FAPUV is that its members have not seen a salary increase in two years, as has been the norm under the Official Rules on Salaries and Additional Benefits, the agreement which has regulated negotiations between FAPUV and the Ministry of University Education (MPPEU) since 1982. With near 30% annual inflation for five years running and two recent currency devaluations, the real purchasing power of the current average professor’s salary has decreased considerably in this period of time.

Presently, a full-time professor’s monthly salary stands at Bs. 2677, which according to the official exchange rate is $425 USD, but using the real exchange rate amounts to a paltry $107 USD, meaning that trained academics earn just above the minimum wage in Venezuela.

Even though this dispute appears to be a straightforward affair, it is more complex because like everything else in Venezuela, it is highly politicized.

Historically a key actor in the foundation of Venezuelan democracy, as well as an educational preserve of the middle and upper classes, the autonomous university system is now arguably the last remaining stronghold of opposition to the Bolivarian revolution and as such has frequently been at odds with the Venezuelan leadership.

Ironically, both the universities and their faculty are dependent on the government for their operational budgets and salaries, as post-secondary tuition in Venezuela is free.

In 2003, then-President Chavez created an alternative “Bolivarian” university system to provide free post-secondary education for citizens that he claimed were effectively excluded from the autonomous university system for socio-economic reasons. The same year, the Federación Nacional de Sindicatos de Profesores de Educación Superior de Venezuela (FENASINPRES) was established as an alternative to FAPUV.

The autonomous university system later rebuffed attempts by Chavez to assume greater control over its internal administration, specifically in December 2010 when the late president proposed a decree that would have effectively given the government the ability to appoint and dismiss administrative personnel up to the highest level at each university.

Widespread opposition and student protests eventually forced him to abandon his plans, as he clearly did not wish to spend the political capital necessary to take them over.

Unsurprisingly, even though the strike is nominally due to an economic grievance on the part of FAPUV, both the government and opposition have politicized the debate, with President Maduro telling the university students to ask their rectors where their budgets have gone, reiterating a longstanding claim by the government that the corrupt administration found in the autonomous university system is to blame for the current state of Venezuelan post-secondary education.

He also suggested that more sinister forces were behind the recent strike by declaring, “The only reason behind the university strike is political destabilization. The right seeks to topple the government.”

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The opposition coalition MUD has firmly sided with FAPUV, demanding that the government “take the situation seriously,” while also echoing a familiar charge from within the autonomous university community that PSUV is attempting to use a potential wage increase as a bargaining chip in exchange for what they have also wanted: control of the schools.

The head of the Universidad Central de Venezuela union chapter (FAPUCV), Victor Márquez, claims that the government has a strategy “to destroy the university”, a sentiment reflected in recent comments made by the national president of FAPUV, Lourdes Ramírez de Viloria.

While defending the union’s actions from accusations that the strike would only hurt the students in the end, she asserted that, “The students have decided that they prefer to lose the semester and not a plural and autonomous university.”

Extreme rhetoric aside, there is some substance to what the FAPUV leadership are saying. The recently appointed Minister of University Education, Pedro Calzadilla, has offered all university faculty the “I Convención Colectiva Única,” or a collective agreement contract that includes a 75% salary hike to faculty that will come into effect in installments over the course of 2013-2014.

Controversially, the negotiations over said collective agreement contract have not included FAPUV (who are demanding a 100% retroactive salary increase starting from January of this year). Instead, Calzadilla has been discussing the proposed terms and clauses with the pro-government post-secondary union FENASINPRES.

The proposed clauses have also been structured in such a way that the autonomous university system would be subordinated to the government and would have to follow “a Bolivarian socialist outline.”

For its part, FAPUV claim that they have received no official news on the terms offered in the new contract and likewise have submitted numerous requests to the MPPEU for a meeting dating back to December of last year, yet to date have not even received an official reply from the ministry.

In response, Calzadilla has ambiguously asked for “rectification” from striking professors and has implored university workers and students to form assemblies at their schools to articulate their demands further. Although difficult to interpret, it appears that the Minister of University Education is only going to involve FAPUV in the negotiations when they end the strike and return to the classrooms.

The Consolidation of Chavista Spatial Hegemony

Hugo Chavez once claimed that he would “take care of Globovisión himself” if they persisted in fomenting plots against him and his government. And while he never followed through with this threat while he was alive, his successor has managed to muzzle this long-standing source of criticism in his first ninety days in office, effectively ridding the Venezuelan airwaves of any criticism.

This makes the current battle over the autonomous university system that much more crucial, as all politics aside, the current economic plight of those individuals tasked with preparing the next generation of Venezuelan doctors, engineers, and teachers leaves much to be desired.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the stark contrast between the state’s treatment of university professors and the officer corps of the Venezuelan armed forces over the past 14 years.

The Venezuelan armed forces received an estimated 40% salary increase on May 13, a decision which corresponded with the launching of Plan Safe Fatherland, an initiative which has ordered thousands of soldiers to patrol the streets of the country’s most dangerous municipalities in an attempt to combat the country’s soaring violent crime rates.

Using available data that has been adjusted for inflation, this recent raise means that the average Venezuelan military officer has received a 400% salary increase since Chavez came to power in 1999, whereas the average college professor has seen their salary decrease by three-quarters during the same period of time.

The same day that the military wage bump was announced, the popular Venezuelan satirical website, El Chigüire Bipolar, ran a headline which read, “Maduro: University Professors won’t receive a raise because they don’t stage coups.” Notwithstanding the humorous intent, the message was painfully obvious to any observer of the Venezuelan polity: Maduro needs to pay the military to stay in the barracks.

Furthermore the growing disparity between academic and military salaries is indicative of a larger phenomenon that has arguably exacerbated the political and economic crisis engulfing the country at the present, and that is the prioritization of state resources to satisfy military prerogatives and the decreasing ability of oil rents to sustain them.

Essentially, the Venezuelan armed forces guarantee the peace as long as it receives the requisite funding and military hardware, and even more importantly, it guards the public space that is increasingly being controlled by the government.

What has become evident since the death of Chavez in early March is that Maduro lacks the personalist appeal to weather a crisis like his predecessor, nor does he have the widespread support and legitimacy to pursue his agenda by invoking an executive decree or calling a referendum. Hence he has been forced to find alternative ways to weaken opposition to his rule.

One way this has been achieved under the new president is the establishment of spatial hegemony over any and all places which the opposition can use to criticize or challenge the government.

In the case of Globovisión, the Venezuelan leadership managed to co-opt the network only after multiple unprofitable years forced the previous owner, Guillermo Zuloaga, to final cut his losses and sell his enterprise to the highest bidder. This coupled with the knowledge that the broadcasting license was up for renewal in two years time has prompted the new ownership to moderate the editorial line to avoid being shut down, thereby ending years of fanatically critical coverage of the Venezuelan government.

In a similar vein, President Maduro has attempted to co-opt the autonomous universities by offering the faculty specific financial incentives in exchange for the acceptance of the collective agreement contract that would undoubtedly undermine the administrative and academic sovereignty of the post-secondary educational apparatus.

Concurrently, the government has decided to bypass the principal union, FAPUV, and negotiate instead with its pro-government counterpart, FENASINPRES, a tactic that Hugo Chavez employed frequently when attempting to subvert cumbersome adversaries, most notably the labor union, Conferación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), from 2001 until 2005.

The battle for final remaining source of public space continues between the autonomous university system and the government and although the dispute appears to have reached a stalemate, it remains doubtful whether the Maduro administration has either the political capital or the audacity to attempt a wholesale takeover at this juncture.

For the moment, there remains a little public space in Venezuela available for opposition to the government, yet if the past is to serve as a guide to the future then this dynamic is liable to change in the coming months or years.

Charles Larratt-Smith is a PhD student in the Political Science department at the University of Toronto and he focuses on Latin American affairs. He holds a BA in Latin American studies from Brooklyn College-CUNY and an MA in International Relations from the City College of New York-CUNY. He recently served as a Guest Professor at the Universidad de Los Andes in Mérida, Venezuela for the 2011-2012 academic year. His interests include alliance formation, foreign policy, and security issues. Special thanks to Carlos Torres for his assistance with this article.