PARTICIPATION in politics is something which Latin American students inherited from their forebears in Europe, especially in Spain, where for centuries students have played prominent roles in the fight for human rights. In the New World, frequent tyrannical governments have made the practice more usual than it ever was in Europe. During periods of dictatorship, students have been the repositories of the ideals of the nation and they have given expression to the grievances of the people. They have often shouted from the housetops what their fathers dared say only in the privacy of the home. On other occasions when their fathers rationalized the status quo, the new generation has repudiated them as old-fashioned in their thinking.

Three conditions give special weight and direction to student political activity: (1) Latin Americans have respect for the educated; (2) an increasing number of students come from the poorer classes and are impatient for social reform; and (3) Latin American populations are young--over 70 percent of Venezuelans, for instance, being under 30 years of age. For these reasons, the counsels of the aged, the experienced and the sophisticated are less listened to, and those of the students are more listened to, than in most other parts of the world.

As the tide of democracy has swung back and forth, the students of Latin America have been constant in their support of its ideals and have been in the forefront of the revolutions against tyrannies. A tradition has grown up; the students are expected to keep alive the goals toward which the nation should be working during the dominance of dictators, whether good or bad. As the students leave the universities for other pursuits they may become aligned with special interests, they may turn to the support of dictators, they may become disillusioned and may cause disillusionment in others; but there are always new generations of students and, despite past failures, the public remains not only confident that they will keep the ideals alive but also hopeful that the millennium is around the corner.

These idealistic factors are reinforced by more personal motivations. In Latin America a boy after eight or ten years of age enjoys a position within the family quite different from that of the same age group in the United States. He no longer takes orders from his mother, but bosses all the females in the household. The boy is encouraged by them to assert his ego in every way possible. It is not surprising that by the time he is 15 or 16 and enters high school he is confident of being able to solve the world's problems. In only a few schools have sports been introduced, and, lacking other outlets and having in mind the traditions of the students, politics becomes his major interest. The grownups encourage him by characterizing his political thinking as "purer" and less biased than his father's.

If you add to this the fact that all Latin Americans have sharp political intuition and enjoy the game, you will understand how, in the university, politics is the major extracurricular activity and permeates all others. But like extracurricular activities elsewhere it has its leaders and specialists. Sometimes these are young men who realize they lack the mental ability to do well in the classroom and take advantage of the prestige of the student in politics to start political careers. Others are brilliant boys with a flair for leadership and oratory, who often neglect their studies because of the lure of public life. In either case they form political action groups, whose members develop fraternal feelings which often endure after graduation and form the basis of political parties in the nation later on. For example, all the major political parties in Venezuela today originated in university groups. The recently elected President, Romulo Bétancourt, for instance, started his political career and his party when he agitated against the dictator, Juan Vicente Gomez, who threw Bétancourt and more than a hundred other students into jail in 1928. An incidental feature of the system is that student political leaders often prolong their student life, either because they don't want to give up their positions or because they are awaiting the right opening to proceed from the university to the national political scene.

It should be said that not all Latin American students take part in politics all the time, just as not all students in the United States spend all their time following athletic events--much as this may often seem to be the case. In the first place there are the Catholic universities where discipline is fairly well maintained and political activity kept at a minimum. The Catholic University of Caracas has about 1,000 students as compared to 7,000 in the Central University of Venezuela, which is also in the capital. Even in the latter, the majority devote most of their time to study, upperclassmen especially being loath to spare time for political activities, but there is a large and vociferous minority which does expend its energies in this manner and this minority expands rapidly into a majority in times of crisis. There is also a difference among the faculties. During the recent dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela it was said that the law students generally started trouble and if there seemed to be a prospect of reprisals they always managed to get out in time to let others be punished. Engineering students have the reputation of being the most conservative.

In ordinary times, however, all of them cast their ballots for student leaders and the ratio of independent voters to the party faithful is roughly the same as among their elders on the national scene. Like their elders, students often vote for a personality rather than for a principle, and, while enjoying their political importance, the majority normally leaves it to those who are interested in politics to carry the ball. Under the circumstances existing since the fall of Pérez Jiménez, many of these have been Communists or fellow travellers.

II

The proclivities of the students are fully exploited by the political parties. It is an old practice of opposition leaders to place students in the forefront of demonstrations that might provoke violence on the part of the powers-that-be, and the police of the recent dictator did fire upon and wound a group of high school students who demonstrated against him in May 1957. On less important issues the party leaders have provoked students to make political demands that they themselves did not dare to make.

Soon after the present Venezuelan political parties came into existence in the 1930s and 1940s, they appointed directors of student activities who recruited supporters not only in the universities but also in the licéos, or high schools, and even sometimes among the primary school pupils. Political activities in the primary and secondary schools have since been forbidden by law and a tacit understanding has existed among the teachers not to use the classroom for political indoctrination. Because of the many extracurricular activities in the schools, however, the politically minded teachers--one estimate is that about half of the teachers belong in this category--have plenty of opportunities outside the classroom to make their influence felt. Each party, working through its teachers and its student leaders, has tried to enhance its prestige by such tactics as seizing upon an issue in the educational field and using it as a pretext for leading the student body in a strike. If one party gets the credit for what turns out to be a successful movement, meaning one that the school authorities have to accept, each of the other parties will feel that it must find an issue on which to show what it can do. Needless to say, such tactics play havoc with school discipline.

When political leaders desire a demonstration in force on some national issue and find the university students apathetic, they appeal to the high school students and generally get an enthusiastic response. In Caracas, high school leaders who have moved on to the university retain their earlier contacts and frequently provide the channels for getting mass support for demonstrations planned in the university. This happened in the demonstration against Vice President Nixon.

The Communists are of course extremely active in the schools. Most of the full-time teachers come from the lower economic levels, because the Instituto Pedagógico, which trains high school teachers, has always provided a free education. Their background thus inclines them to the left. The number of professed Communists now in the Instituto is not large; the great majority of the teachers and students are members of the Acción Democrática party, whose extreme left wing, however, offers an excellent cover for the Communists who are working underground. It takes only a few of them, one or two well placed in each high school, to make their influence felt in inciting the students to political action of a kind they desire.

In the university, political life takes on a different aspect because it is integrated into the administration of the institutions. Throughout Latin America students have a voice in running the universities to a degree that is unknown in the United States. One of the reasons is that most of the professors are professional men who teach only part time for the sake of prestige and for little pay. They do not, therefore, have the feeling of corporate responsibility characteristic of the full-time faculties of an American university. In most of the so-called autonomous universities of Latin America, control is shared in some respect between administrators, faculty and students. Many administrators stoutly defend the system and, in view of the independence shown by students from their early school days, it is understandable that administrators welcome the sharing of some of the responsibility by elected student leaders. Unfortunately the students do not always accept the defeat of their representatives' views in the university councils and they sometimes repudiate their own leaders. Consequently they frequently engage in walkouts, strikes and even violence to enforce their will. In many places the students have the professors and the administrators completely cowed.

In 1952, after much student agitation, President Pérez Jiménez of Venezuela closed the Central University and kept it closed until the fall of 1953. When it reopened it was without any autonomy, authority being vested in officials appointed by the government. Professors and students considered themselves as fellow sufferers. Even under the dictatorship, however, there was a degree of student independence that would surprise a professor in the United States. If the students didn't like a test, for instance, they would walk out in a body, or they would decide when they were going on their holidays. If a professor tried to penalize them he generally failed. After the fall of Pérez Jiménez, the students reasserted themselves and exercised more administrative power over the university than ever before. In most cases they were the deciding voice in dropping professors alleged to have been partisans of the recent dictator. This domination of the universities by the students gives them a self-confidence, and even an arrogance, that is carried over into their national political activities.

III

Once upon a time American and French democracy dominated ideological thinking among students, but the triumphs of Communism in some parts of the world and the denunciations of it in others have aroused what appears to be a widespread and insatiable curiosity about it. Leftist thinking is understandable among the increasing number of students from the poorer classes who are looking for quick solutions of the serious social problems to which they have been personally exposed. Students from other social classes, however, seem to have similar tendencies. The reasons include their rebellious spirit, their inexperience, their impatience with the slowness of social progress and of the growth of democracy in Latin America, and their dislike of what they feel the "rightist" United States stands for. They identify us with dictators, especially Pérez Jiménez, who made much ado about persecuting the Communists. As we gave him a medal, supposedly on that account, our anti-Communism has had the effect of intensifying sympathy for the Communists on the part of people who knew that he was persecuting all who opposed him. They decry as undemocratic our racial prejudices, the reputed difficulties of American liberals under the influence of McCarthyism and the known difficulties of some Latin American liberals in getting visas to visit our country.[i]

Although articulate student opinion in Venezuela is leftist, the number of students converted to Communism is small and the number who profess it openly is even smaller. The Acción Democrática party is the largest in the universities as well as in the rest of the country, but it is divided into several factions, one of which advocates policies more radical than those espoused openly by the Communists; it undoubtedly includes real Communists in its ranks. Non-Communist nationalists, however, see little reason not to work with the Communists, for the distant threat of Soviet control seems less dangerous to them than the power of the United States, with which they are closely linked by economy and geography.

In late 1955 or early 1956 there was established a Frente Universitario composed of Communists and non-Communists working for the overthrow of President Pérez Jiménez. This student group worked closely with the Junta Patriótica, a national underground organization of the various parties that had been suppressed, and with the university professors and high school teachers who signed the Manifiesto de los Intellectuales, demanding a change in the government. Although dissident army officers actually sparked the revolution that overthrew Pérez Jiménez in January 1958, and although his departure on the night of January 22 was brought about by a general strike and an uprising on the part of the entire population of the nation, the public looked upon the students as having been the earliest and hardest workers toward the desired goal.

The efforts of the students had been brought into the open two months before when they started a demonstration within the grounds of the University City in Caracas and then began a march toward the President's Palace. At the Plaza de Venezuela the police stopped them with tear gas, chased them back into their grounds and then sought them out with clubs, arresting as many as they could lay their hands on. At one critical moment in the roundup a girl Communist ran the gauntlet of a police cordon and not only got away herself but diverted the attention of the police enough to enable others to escape. She became a heroine to the students and an example of one way the Communists have gained prestige. Following this incident the Central University was closed and remained closed until after Pérez Jiménez had fled. During that period the students were busy making propaganda, establishing their leadership among the poorer classes and generally promoting conditions which led to the general strike of January 20, the demonstrations of the two following days and the flight of the hated one.

In the Central University of Caracas, after the fall of the dictator, the normal system of student government and participation in the university administration was reintroduced by the Provisional Government. The students of the eleven schools created eleven Centers, the president of each being ex officio a member of the Federation of Student Centers. In the elections for a dozen or more officers for each Center, the voters had to choose between various slates, and in the spirit of the truce that had been declared by the national party leaders each slate was composed of members of various parties, including the Communists. The elections therefore failed to reveal the real strength of the parties, but they do show how the Communists profited from the truce to get into positions of influence in student government.

A professed Communist was, for instance, the presidential nominee on the winning slate in the School of Humanities and automatically became a member of the Federation. He was the oldest member of that body in point of student life, having entered the university in 1949, left when it was closed in 1952 and returned in 1956. In the Federation his colleagues elected him to be their vice president. The university, still lacking a statute, was being governed by a rectorial commission, but the Federation, taking advantage of the prestige gained by the students in the revolution, exercised a virtual veto over every administrative act of the commission and its chairman, the acting rector. The Communist vice president of students, a man with a pleasing personality, quick perception and a facility for presenting facts clearly and forcefully, for a time probably wielded as much power as anyone in the University City.

In December 1958 the Government Junta enacted a new Law of Universities which gives complete autonomy to the four national universities--the Central University in Caracas, the University of the Andes in Mérida, the University of Julia in Maracaibo and the newly established University of Carabobo in Valencia. The statute ratifies student participation in the university councils and makes the arrangement permanent.

IV

The students again played significant roles during the political crisis of July 1958 when there was alleged to be a threat by a group of army officers to overthrow the democratic régime. Early on the morning of July 22, the Central University announced the suspension of the final examinations that were going on and called upon the faculty and students to defend their country from impending danger. At a meeting that morning an emissary of the government solicited the aid of the students and promised that they would be issued arms if necessary. The President of the Federation of Student Centers gave instructions as to how the students should distribute themselves in strategic locations to defend the city if the army should make a move. Having been told how to make "Molotov cocktails" out of soft drink bottles and gasoline, they dispersed to ransack soft drink stands and drain the tanks of all automobiles in the neighborhood. They then took up their stations at the indicated strong points, where the poorer classes rallied behind the student leadership, as they had done in the preceding January. Some of the poor people from the shacks on the hills are said to have rushed toward the University City earlier in the day to help the students defend it from what they thought was an impending attack by the military.

Late in the afternoon of the same day, after the army had shown that it was not disposed to interfere, the university professors and students followed their acting rector to a grand demonstration of thousands of people before the Presidential Palace to show their devotion to the régime in power. The demonstration was organized largely by the student leaders and was marked by orderliness and discipline. That evening the Provisional President of the Republic went to the University City in person and thanked the students for their help in preserving the régime. The affair was over as far as student leaders were concerned, although the agitation did not die down until the Minister of Defense and other alleged culprits were exiled on the third day.

The incident is interesting in several respects. In the first place, it was afterwards rumored that there had been no specific threat to the régime and that it had been manufactured to test the strength of the democratic elements of the population. Whether or not this was true, the incident did show how much the government relied upon the students to show democratic strength and it certainly raised their youthful egos. The Communists also gained prestige both because they were said to have been the principal object of attack by the military engaged in the conspiracy and because of the efficiency which many professed Communists displayed in organizing the demonstrations in the university, in the city of Caracas and simultaneously in other cities and towns of the country. Moreover, the principal scapegoat was the Minister of Defense, an outspoken anti-Communist.

Students played a smaller part in other eruptions marking Venezuela's emergence from dictatorship. Doubtless incited by the Communists, the university students did plan a demonstration against Vice President Nixon, using high school students to produce the mass effect. They were proud of their success and the orderliness of the affair, even though Mr. Nixon cancelled his appearance because of the violence which another group perpetrated against him and Mrs. Nixon as they entered the city of Caracas from the airport. The students disclaim all responsibility for the latter incident and there is little reason to believe that they were responsible. Those who took part were older men of the gangster type, obviously not students, and it is not in the character of Latin American students to thrust others into the front line to fight their battles.

At the time of the attempted coup d'état of September 7, the universities were closed for vacation and, although students joined the workers and middle class people who spontaneously attacked a military police barracks, the students as such played no significant role.

In the election of December 7 and the campaign that preceded it, the Federation of Student Centers was neutral. It stood for peace and order between the parties and for basic unity during and after the elections. There was no campaigning on the campuses, but individually students worked off the campus for their respective parties. Although Admiral Larrazabal, the former Provisional President who had congratulated the students in Caracas for their patriotic support the previous summer, enjoyed wide popularity, few university students participated in the riots in Caracas which followed news of his defeat. Some primary and high school students were in evidence but most of the demonstrators were not of the educated class. It is significant that the Communist youth, who had supported Larrazabal, behaved with great discipline, opposing all post-election demonstrations and urging the people to accept the electoral results "in a spirit of national unity." Thus, in so far as the Central University is concerned, the political truce, which has proved so useful to the Communists, withstood the strains of the presidential elections.

V

It is evident that in Venezuela as well as in other countries of Latin America the Communists have understood how to use the schools and the universities not only for indoctrinating the coming generation but also for present political action. There is considerable evidence that they are currently more interested in the latter than in the former.

They have taken advantage of the political truce to consolidate the prestige that they acquired in the underground activities against Pérez Jiménez. In order to strengthen their respectability they have become efficient and zealous workers in student welfare and in such extracurricular activities as dramatics, as well as in political action. Many who proved their worth have been too busy to study and do not seem eager to graduate too soon. They have concentrated on establishing personal friendships with the leaders of other parties and gaining the confidence of the student body, so that they might be regarded as democratic leaders who need not be feared because of their membership in the Communist Party. They hope that after the truce comes to an end, some of their student leaders may still enjoy the support of political independents and the left wing of the Acción Democrática party.

On the brighter side, it must be remembered that many Venezuelan students flirted with Communism in the latter years of the dictator, Juan Vicente Gomez, and later recanted. We can expect the same thing to happen to some of the present-day Communists and, even more, to many non-Communists who now seem unaware of the danger of placing confidence in those whose first loyalty lies outside the country. The nationalism that the Communists promote so zealously today can boomerang against them.

Will the political influence of students maintain its intensity? Some professors predict that if stable government can last the students will settle down in a few years. Others believe that what is needed is a complete reform in the educational system, including a curtailment of the students' power in the administration of the universities. Both these developments might reduce the power of students in the university administration. But it is difficult to believe that the tradition of student political activity, which is so well imbedded in the political organization and in the thoughts of the people, can be upset in any short period of time. Latin Americans of all ages are intensely interested in politics and, as democracy develops in Venezuela, party rivalry will open the field to even more political activity, as each faction seeks credit for social and economic reform. The children become interested at an early age and a large proportion of their teachers are involved. The tradition is likely to continue that those who aspire to political leadership must start their careers in school and this in itself will keep them in politics.

As for anti-Americanism, it should be noted that Venezuelans, including students, have shown little hostility toward private American citizens despite the fact that the 30,000 or 40,000 Americans in Venezuela have provided them with a host of opportunities. It is obvious to most of these Americans that many aspects of American life, other than government policies, are much admired. The Centro Venezolano Americano estimates that there are now about 7,000 Venezuelan students in the United States--as many as there are in the Central University in Caracas. The future of Venezuela and of Venezuelan-United States relationships may therefore be determined as much by those who return from the United States as by the students at home. The former, although not exposed to the same demagoguery, may be just as critical of United States policies that seem detrimental to the interests of their country. What is most needed is a careful reëxamination of our policies in an effort to reëstablish our country as the leader of democracy in the eyes of the Venezuelans and other Latin American peoples.

[i] The newly elected President, Romulo Bétancourt, fortunately ran the gauntlet of the inquisition to which applicants for visas are subjected and spent much of his exile in the United States and in Puerto Rico, but many others refused to expose themselves to the ordeal and stayed instead in other Latin American capitals where they absorbed all the anti-American propaganda they could hear. After the revolution of January 1958 they returned to Caracas and assumed leading positions in the fields of teaching, journalism and the radio. Many of them are also in the second rank of leadership in the now dominant Acción Democrática party and will probably be heard from in the legislature.

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  • S. WALTER WASHINGTON, a member of the faculty of the Woodrow Wilson Department of Foreign Affairs, University of Virginia; First Secretary of Embassy in Mexico, 1945-48, and in Madrid, 1948-50; recently in Venezuela studying student political activity
  • More By S. Walter Washington