[News] Allende was Wrong: Neoliberalism, Venezuela's Student Right and the Answer from the Left

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Feb 12 12:00:18 EST 2015

*Allende was Wrong: Neoliberalism, Venezuela's Student Right and the 
Answer from the Left*

By Lucas Koerner , February 10th 2015

“Defend university autonomy for a true popular democracy.” “Freedom and 
Autonomy.” “Movement 13 welcomes you to study, struggle, and love.”

No, these slogans I saw adorning the walls were not copied from the 
University of Chile, where I studied in 2012-2013, researching and 
struggling alongside the Chilean student movement that is militantly 
fighting to overturn the neoliberal educational regime imposed under 
Pinochet. But they very easily could have been. No, I was not at a 
militant Leftist public university; I was in Mérida, at the Faculty of 
Humanities of the University of Los Andes (ULA), which is regarded as 
the principal recruiting ground for Venezuela’s rightwing student movement.

On Friday, January 23, the ULA erupted once again in violent student 
protests in which masked students temporarily set up barricades and 
attempted to forcibly enter several local stores. For local residents, 
these protests represented a bitter reminder of the “Guarimba,” the 
several months of violent opposition demonstrations in which rightwing 
students together with Colombian paramilitaries shut down major avenues 
with barricades and assassinated police and Chavista activists in a 
desperate bid to force the salida, or exit, of President Nicolás Maduro.

What is most confusing and troubling is the fact that the discourse of 
“university autonomy” has always been a slogan of the Left, which young 
people from Chile to Greece have utilized to defend themselves from 
outright repression at the hands of dictatorial regimes as well as from 
the far more nefarious structural violence of neoliberal privatization. 
Moreover, the practices of donning the capucha, or mask, setting up 
street barricades, and hurling molotov cocktails in pitched street 
battles with police are tried and true Leftist tactics developed in the 
course of grassroots struggles against the authoritarian capitalist 
state in contexts as distinct as Venezuela, France, and Palestine.

Yet in contemporary Venezuela, these historically Leftist forms of 
struggle, encompassing discourses, symbols, and tactical repertoires, 
have been appropriated by rightwing students, but with an ideological 
content that could not be more radially opposed: far from rebels or 
revolutionaries, these rightwing students are reactionaries through and 
through, bent on reversing the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution and 
restoring the oligarchic order firmly in place for 500 years prior to 
the conquest of power by the revolutionary grassroots movements that 
comprise Chavismo.

Here we are confronted by the stone-cold realization that there is 
nothing inherently revolutionary about young people, or students for 
that matter. Sadly, we are forced to concede that Salvador Allende, who 
famously said, “to be young and not revolutionary is a biological 
contradiction,” was wrong.

In what follows, I will offer some cursory notes towards an explanation 
of this rightward shift among certain segments of Venezuelan students 
together with their paradoxical appropriation of historically Leftist 
modes of struggle, focusing on the gentrification of the Venezuelan 
university as well as the ascendancy of neoliberal ideology as two 
crucial conditions for this overall process of ideological mutation. I 
will conclude with an interview with Javier, a student of political 
economy at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, who currently put his 
studies on hold to pursue worker organizing in coordination with local 
communal councils. Javier will discuss the Bolivarian University as a 
radical pedagogical alternative from below as well as the struggles 
faced by revolutionary students in the face of a resurgent Right.

The Gentrification of the Venezuelan University

This dramatic ideological metamorphosis undergone by Venezuelan student 
movements cannot be explained outside the context of the neoliberal 
“gentrification” of the university. Nonetheless, this neoliberalization 
only came in the wake of the brutal repression of decades of radical 
student struggles that sought to bring down the walls that separate the 
“ivory tower” from the social reality of the poor, excluded majority.

At its height; the 1969 movement for “Academic Renovation” fought for a 
radical democratization of the university, whereby students, faculty, 
and university workers would have equal decision-making power; which 
George Ciccariello-Mahr terms a “radicalization of the very notion of 
autonomy itself, one that asserted autonomy from the government while 
insisting that the university be subservient to the needs of the wider 
society of which students and workers were a part.”1 As we will see 
later, it is precisely this more nuanced, dialectical notion of autonomy 
that is lacking among those presently claiming to speak on behalf of 
Venezuelan students.

The revolutionary Renovation movement was savagely crushed by the 
government of Rafael Caldera, who unceremoniously sent tanks to close 
down the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). Nonetheless, this 
outright repression was tame by comparison to the “more insidious… 
subtle, and long-term policy of ethnic cleansing within the public 
university [which was realized] by limiting popular access and returning 
the institutions to their previous status as refuges for the most elite 
segments of society.”2 This progressive embourgeoisement of the 
Venezuelan university prefigured a similar process that would occur 
globally in the context of the neoliberal turn of the subsequent 
decades, in which public universities from the University of California 
to the University of Chile saw ruthless cuts in public funding, 
privatization of services, dramatic tuition hikes, and creeping 
technocratization, all with profound implications for social class 
composition. That is, the youth filling the halls of Venezuelan public 
universities came increasingly from the ranks of the bourgeoisie and 
petty-bourgeoisie, which rendered them all the more vulnerable to the 
seductive appeal of neoliberal ideology.

Unfortunately, this tendency has not been entirely reversed under the 
Bolivarian governments of Chavez and Maduro. While the Bolivarian 
Revolution has seen the creation of a new system of Bolivarian 
universities in an effort to outflank the traditional public 
universities as we will see below, the government and the array of 
radical social forces driving it from below have thus far been unable to 
launch a frontal assault.

In other words, whilst these traditional universities are “public” in 
name and nominally free for all students, historic public universities 
such as the UCV nevertheless retain all kinds of classist filtering 
mechanisms, such as entrance exams and additional fees for registration, 
books, etc., that serve to effectively bar working class students from 
attending. Most egregious in this respect are the so-called “autonomous 
universities” such as the ULA, which are conferred unquestioned 
authority over internal decision-making, while at the same time 
receiving full state funding, amounting in some cases to the budget of a 
Caribbean nation, for which they are obligated to give little in the way 
of formal accounting.

Moreover, this lingering bourgeois form of education in the traditional 
universities is matched by a thoroughly technocratic content, in which 
education is conceived as the production of upwardly-mobile experts 
insulated from the daily struggles of the masses, who are destined to 
serve the bureaucratic state or capital. As Javier, a student of 
political economy at the recently founded Bolivarian University 
succinctly put it, this capitalist model of education is about getting 
you to subscribe to the bourgeois careerist fiction that you need to 
study in order to “be someone,” fetichizing education as a sterile 
commodity purchased like any other in order to augment one's “human 
capital,” as consistent with neoliberal logic.

Given this disproportionately elite class composition and thoroughly 
bourgeois educational paradigm, it is no wonder then that the student 
federations of public universities like the UCV and the ULA are now 
governed by the Right.

Neoliberalism: The Illusion of Subversion

While the changing class composition of Venezuelan universities over 
previous decades represents an important structural factor behind the 
rise of Venezuela’s rightwing student movement, we cannot neglect the 
particular characteristics of neoliberal ideology, namely its seductive 
capacity for passing as radical or revolutionary. But first, what is 

Neoliberalism might be defined as “historical, class-based ideology that 
proposes all social, political, and ecological problems can be resolved 
through more direct free-market exposure, which has become an 
increasingly structural aspect of capitalism.”3 Emerging as the 
political response on the part of the capitalist state to the economic 
crisis of the 1970s, neoliberalism sought to roll back the “democratic 
gains that had been previously achieved by the working classes, and 
which had become, from capital’s perspective, barriers to 
accumulation.”4 It was in this context of the ‘68 revolt that the 
revolutionary Left and the neoliberal Right would share a proclaimed 
common enemy, namely an overbearing, bureaucratic state engaged in 
bloody imperialist wars abroad and fierce repression at home, although 
the anti-statism of the latter was pure rhetoric, as neoliberal 
politicians were content to use the state to implement their class project.5

In what followed, the post-’68 demands leveled against the capitalist 
state for formal individual rights by the hegemonic variants of the 
feminist, LGBT, civil rights, etc. movements were perfectly compatible 
with the neoliberal agenda, which in turn spawned the “NGOization” of 
Leftist politics whereby non-profits progressively took over the 
leadership of social movements and channeled them in a de-radicalized, 
localized direction. These developments gave rise to the normalization 
of petty-bourgeois lifestyle politics, especially in the newly 
gentrified universities, wherein demands for “diversity” and “inclusion” 
of underprivileged minorities could safely be made without ruffling any 
feathers. Thus, the dangerous lure of neoliberal ideology lies in its 
ability to render individualistic lifestyle politics, i.e. demanding 
access to consumer items, as cathartic acts of authentic revolt and 
resistance. Even as critical a thinker as Michel Foucault was seduced by 
neoliberalism’s apparent radicalism, joining in its chorus against the 
welfare state and praising it as a vehicle to promote the rights of the 
“excluded” (prisoners, LGBT people, women, those deemed “mentally ill,” 

We should not, therefore, be surprised by the fact that a segment of 
Venezuelan students don the traditional clothing of the Left and 
actually consider themselves revolutionaries facing down what they 
consider an oppressive dictatorship. But we must not be fooled. What the 
Venezuelan Right is attempting to do is appropriate the historic 
slogans, symbols, and tactics of the Left, but strip them of all 
collective emancipatory content, which is replaced with bourgeois 
individualist demands for consumer choice. Thus, the “freedom” that they 
demand has nothing to do with the plethora of social rights conquered 
under the Bolivarian Revolution, but here connotes unregulated access to 
dollars, weekend getaways to Miami, the “right” to own and exploit.

The “autonomy” that they clamor for amounts to nothing short of total 
unaccountability to the rest of society, while continuing to lay claim 
to the latter’s resources. The militant tactics of the street barricade, 
the capucha, and the Molotov do not figure here as legitimate forms of 
mass resistance or revolutionary intervention, but represent instances 
of fascist, paramilitary violence enacted by individuals against a 
government of the people. Nonetheless, it is precisely the apparently 
“anti-authoritarian” character of neoliberal ideology that enables the 
Venezuelan student Right to retrofit traditionally Leftist forms of 
struggle with reactionary bourgeois content, effectively disguising 
their shrill cries for individualist consumer choice as a righteous 
chorus of social rebellion.

However, this rightwing appropriation does not go uncontested. If 
symbols like the capucha and the barricade ultimately constitute what 
Ernesto Laclau terms "empty signifiers" that can be filled with any 
ideological content, then their meaning is perpetually disputed in the 
heat of social struggle. In other words, the Right's usurpation can and 
must be reversed by new generations of revolutionary young people, 
struggling to at once reclaim the past and win the war for a socialist 

The Bolivarian University of Venezuela: The Answer from the Bolivarian Left

The flagship of the Bolivarian government's revolutionary initiative for 
higher education, the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) was 
founded in 2003 as part of the Mission Sucre, which has saw the radical 
expansion of access to quality public education among the popular 
classes historically excluded from the Venezuelan educational system. 
Today, the UBV annually graduates more students than any other 
institution of higher education in the country. Apart from rupturing 
with the traditionally oligarchic form of Venezuelan higher education, 
which has historically been the province of the elite, the UBV also 
proposes a revolution in the practical content of education, which it 
defines as “liberating, with criteria of social justice, inclusive, free 
and quality.”

I had the opportunity to sit down with Javier, a student of political 
economy at the Bolivarian University, who has temporarily frozen his 
studies in order to take on worker organizing in his community in 23 de 
Enero, located in the vast working class area in the west of Caracas 
known as Catia. He also works as a facilitator in the Bolivarian 
University for Workers "Jesus Rivero" in the Capital District 
government, which aims to raise political and class consciousness 
amongst public workers and prepare them for "assuming the direct and 
democratic management of the social process of work". All facilitation 
sessions take place at the workplace itself.

His words paint a provisional picture of the depth of the revolution in 
educational praxis currently underway in Venezuela.

Q: Can you speak about the popular pedagogical project of the Bolivarian 

A: Well if I were to talk about a popular project towards the structural 
transformation of the state and also the structural transformation of 
our thinking that we have currently, I would openly uphold [the example 
of] the Bolivarian University of the Workers, because, it’s a university 
that breaks with the top-down, positivist framework of education. The 
worker or compañero takes on the process of self-education in the space 
of work itself. This leads to the complete reevaluation of the education 
I have in my mind that I reproduce in practice, and this critical 
reevaluation of thought and practice lets me reinvent myself. The 
thinking that I have is a different kind of thought pattern that breaks 
with the frameworks of the capitalist system.

Moreover, our university sets down [the model of] self-education through 
reading, debate, and writing. This means that we don’t deny existing 
theories. We read the current theory, which is the systematization of 
struggles, for theories are the systematization of the struggles of the 
people, of the experience of the people. We debate this systematization, 
and we see if it can be adjusted to our present moment in order to not 
be dogmatic, but rather dialectical. Continuous, collective, integrated, 
and permanent self-education, that is the strategy. It is collective, 
because we all educate ourselves through the exchange of knowledge. It 
is continuous and permanent, because it never stops and we are always 
educating ourselves. It is integrated: We can specialize in an area, but 
we truly have to also know a little about everything, because labor is 
not an individual process, but a social one, where we all participate 
and we are all important in the development of the nation.

We also address the question of the management of the social labor 
process in order to be able to bring about structural transformations. 
When we talk about taking on the management of the social labor process, 
it’s the whole process. We realize this when we look at the arepa: the 
person who sows the corn, the person who harvests the corn, the person, 
who transports the corn, the person who processes the corn. In other 
words, the arepa comes out of a process in which there are very many 
people participating, the truck driver, the compañero in the factory, 
the compañera amassing the cornmeal; it’s all important work. So we 
propose that we take on the whole process and view ourselves as equals 
in struggle. This then is what permits us to truly form a culture of 
work that is not the competitive culture of work of the capitalist 
system, but rather a culture of work that guarantees the happiness of 
our people, we ourselves taking over the organization of what is truly 
socialism, the structural transformation of the state that we have.

Q: I want to follow your last point to a more macro level. How do you 
place the Bolivarian University in the context of the socialist struggle 
more broadly in society, particularly in terms of struggles over education?

A: Many of the universities teach the students a [large] number of lies 
that we at the Bolivarian University of Workers work to dismantle. We 
therefore have to dismantle the [large] number of lies that the 
capitalist system has sold us. One of these things that that they sell 
you in the universities is that you have to study to be someone. But 
they don’t explain to you that from the moment that you are in your 
mother’s womb, you already are someone, someone important. If you were 
to lose vital signs in the womb, your, mother would feel a great pain, 
and not only your mother, but your father, your closest family members. 
So, we are headed towards breaking with this framework of education, 
this deceitful education that continues to view you as labor-power.

[In contrast], the Bolivarian University of the Workers teaches, which 
is fundamental and essential, the review of the development of struggle 
in our society from the perspective of labor. How did our society 
undergo transformations? How were the instruments of labor forged, and 
how also how were the mechanisms of social division created? How did 
this social division take us to the point of creating systems of 
domination? In one moment, we lived under what was primitive communism, 
then we lived under slavery, and then what was feudalism, and now we are 
living under a system that continues to be slavery, that is the 
capitalist system, where they continue to dominate us with miserable 
wages and there’s no just distribution of wealth.

In our revolutionary Bolivarian process guided by our President Hugo 
Rafael Chávez Frias, he addressed all of these historic struggles, but 
he also set down the important and timely objective in our Constitution 
and organic law of the just distribution of wealth. And if a compañero 
has a great factory bought with what he says is the product of his 
labor, we don’t believe him above all because the amount of property 
that he has is the product of alien labor and he pays [his workers] a 
miserable portion of the wealth that he receives from their labor. So, 
we are going to rupture with this system, go about rethinking, to 
understand that we can have other forms of organization for managing 
public administration. It could be a counsel administration, of counsels 
with revolutionary leadership, where the most dedicated compañeras and 
compañeros are vindicated and recognized. In this dynamic, we are not 
saying that we [the workers] are the only historic subject of our 
Bolivarian process, but rather that the campesino, the fisherman, the 
transport worker are also important. The path of communal [organizing] 
is also important, and so is the struggle of the compañeras and 
compañeros in the student centers, who keep on despite being pounded by 
this education of the capitalist system. For us, it is the recognition 
of all of the compañeras and compañeros in our struggles that matters.

We have also proposed that this process of collective, continuous, 
integral, and permanent self-education has to reach the communal 
councils, the communes, the colectivos, the social movements, whatever 
organizational expression that they might have. It has to reach [these 
spaces], because, we have to break with and decentralize the 
[traditional] conception of the university. It’s a great struggle we all 
have to take on, because what is the university, but the 
universalization of knowledge. You, I, all of the compañeros here, the 
bus driver, all of the people who are here in this medium of transport 
possess knowledge.7 What we have to do is create the spaces where we can 
expound the amount of knowledge that we have and expound as well the 
amount of needs that we have, and in function of this, begin planning 
[society, especially the economy] ourselves.

Q: Many young people in this society, in the universities, have been 
deceived, and there’s a struggle for hegemony among young people in this 
country. For instance, we have a rightwing student movement that is 
producing openly violent and fascist leaders. How do you view the role 
of these alternative pedagogical projects in this struggle with the Right?

A: For us, the fact that the compa is young does not mean that he is 
revolutionary, that he is for structural transformation. The Right has 
many young people, but they are old in their thinking, because they 
continue upholding capitalist thinking. One has to be young in different 
areas, physically, but above all in one´s thinking. If there is a man 
who we could say marked a watershed in our history, not just for 
decades, but for centuries, it is Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias, because he 
shattered the framework, he imploded the schema of the bourgeois state. 
He imploded a space of great domination with new thinking. With 
liberating thinking, he imploded the space of the army, of our armed 
forces, a repressive organ that was directed against its own people on 
February 27th and 28th, 1989.8 He had a reflexive capacity, because 
Comandante Hugo Chávez Frias had already been doing this work. It’s 
continuous, it’s work that is going to take a long time, and we have to 
dedicate our heart and soul to the work that we are called to do and not 
neglect a single area.

The other task is to recognize our advances. The fact is that we have 
graduated an amount of compañeras and compañeros who have not graduated 
in forty years during which they didn’t have access to education. Yes, 
we can and must deepen our revolutionary process to advance towards 
socialism, but it’s also important to recognize all of the advances that 
we’ve had thus far.

Q: I went to the ULA last week and I fascinated by the discourse of 
autonomy and freedom appearing in their murals, the capucha that they 
use, all of which is an appropriation of the discourse and symbolism of 
the Left. How do you respond to this?

A: They have always tried to take our symbols away from us. For us, the 
capucha is a symbol of struggle. It’s ours. It was us who had to mask 
our faces [and protest in the streets], because we didn’t have an 
adequate education, above all in high school, but also in the 
university. We had many problems during the Fourth Republic, and we had 
to take to the streets, because they raised the student transportation 
fare. We had to take to the streets, because we had to have class on the 
floor, because there were no chairs, because the roof was leaking. We 
lived through all of this, and for those reasons, we went out into the 

Today, there is a movement that is trying to take the streets, but 
responding to the interests of the private companies and the private 
media, which regrettably under our revolutionary process continue to 
have an economic power, which is expressed in the media, in the rumor 
campaigns. What we have to do is dismantle this vast amount of lies, but 
these rumors have an effect, because there’s a number of lies that we 
still have in our heads, that we have not yet dismantled. It’s a great 

Evidently, many groups there [at the opposition marches] are paid, many 
groups that don’t truly represent our people. You can ask them. There 
were some compañeros of the people interviewingsome of the people who 
participated on January 24th in the “March of the Empty Pots,” which we 
might rather have called the “March of the Empty Heads,” because they 
don’t think. So they interviewed them and asked them if they were poor, 
to which they quickly respond, “I’m not poor.”

Besides, this is an example of them trying to steal our symbols, the 
pots, which our people took out to the streets before the Caracazo and 
after the Caracazo, because the pots were truly empty, there was nothing 
to eat. Today no, it’s an economic war, they are hoarding everything, 
and everyone has seen the amount of food that we have. They tell us that 
there is no flour, but there’s not a single arepera closed. They say 
that that there’s no milk, but there’s no shortage of yogurt. So they 
are trying to escape from the regularization of the sale of these 
products in order to reap greater profits, but not only to reap greater 
profits, but also to boycott the revolutionary government and that this 
unrest be directed against the revolutionary government of Nicolás Maduro.

 From here, we have to go out in the streets with an alternative popular 
communication that engages face-to-face with our people and dismantles 
the large amount of lies, but we also must develop the productive 
forces. Beyond a crisis, well there is a crisis, but it´s a crisis of 
their system, a crisis of capitalism, because the socialist system still 
doesn't exist yet. So we have to take advantage of this crisis of the 
capitalist system and come out of it advancing ahead with the 
development of our productive forces, evidently organized according to a 
distinct logic of work, a new culture of work that is liberating: labor 
that truly educates you to build this new republican order envisioned by 
our philosopher and pedagogue Simon Rodriguez, the teacher of Simon 


1 Ciccariello-Maher, G. (2013). We created Chávez: A people's history of 
the Venezuelan revolution. Durham; Duke University Press, p. 113.

2 Ibid., p. 112.

3 Marois cited in Weber, J.R. (2011). Red october: Left-Indigenous 
struggles in modern Bolivia. Brill: Boston, p. 30.

4 Panitch, L., & Gindin, S. (2012). The making of global capitalism: The 
political economy of American empire. Verso: London, p. 15.

5 Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University 
Press: New York, p. 42.

6 See Zamora, D. (2014). “Can we criticize Foucault?” Jacobin, 10 
December 2014. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/foucault-interview/

7 Note: This interview was conducted on a public metro bus en route from 
Ciudad Caribia to Metro Gato Negro in Catia.

8 February 27 and 28, 1989 refers to the Caracazo, the explosion of mass 
social mobilizations rejecting neoliberal measures imposed by the 
government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, under whose orders the army occupied 
the streets of Caracas and proceeded to gun down anywhere between 300 
and 3000 people.

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