Reading Arendt in Caracas
Chávez does indeed want to discredit and control the students-- and their universities--lest they erode his popular base, for many of the nation's TV watchers agree with the students that the government should not control the media or make assaults on free speech. Many want a constructive revolution, not an opposition-bashing one or one designed to perpetuate class warfare. Some polls taken in recent weeks show Chávez's approval ratings declining slightly, reflecting the widespread appreciation of the student's protests. But El Presidente has responded by announcing on TV--Chávez does not disguise his intentions--that he is going to "neutralize" the three main sources of opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela: the media, the church and the schools and universities. Closing down RCTV was step one. Undoing longstanding programs in the very secular schools that allow a limited amount of religious education for those parents who want it for their children will be step two. And step three will be to continue asserting control over school curriculums (where military instruction is mandatory) and taking away the autonomy of the universities that still have it. As Teodoro Petkoff notes in his daily column for the newspaper Tal Cual, there is a general attack on independent social institutions, including (and this will be very unpopular) the sports federation sponsoring the Americas Cup soccer matches, where the students continued their protest in very low-key, nondisruptive forms.
I asked Dr. Benjamin Scharifker, the distinguished chemist who is now rector of Simon Bolivar University, a calm and judicious man, what he intended to do to protect the students and the autonomy of the universities. He told me that he sent university lawyers to help the students who were arrested in the early June demonstrations, that he protested the violence used against his students, that he met with the students to discuss their plans and support their nonviolent tactics. He is regularly convening with the other autonomous university rectors to make an alliance and issue statements. I asked him if he thought the students were being manipulated by any nonstudent groups, as charged by Chávez, who speaks of a "soft coup." Scharifker laughed: "It may be that the opposition parties in Venezuela are inefficient and disorganized, but our students--we train the future petroleum engineers as well as the future philosophers here--are completely practical. They want a country that runs well, for all the people, and that encourages all the people to participate; it is that simple."
His description accorded completely with my impression when, after my lecture at his university, a political science graduate student came up to me and said in slow, careful English what he had heard and what he thought of it: "You tell why Hannah Arendt admires the American Constitution in her book On Revolution, except she worries a lot about what happens between elections, when the people are letting their representatives look after things for them. Then you say later she came to worry even more about the executive branch becoming too powerful, not checked enough by those representatives. But I think that in Venezuela you have to worry even more stronger than she did because you have a president who wants to kill the Constitution that created him!" I assured him that many people in America were worrying even more stronger than Hannah Arendt did about the American President being an autocrat but that it was the task of students everywhere to speak and act freely, as they do naturally, because, in her words, "they are new beginnings."