The Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, the nation’s largest academic institution, is in shambles. In a heartfelt report in Harper’s Magazine, Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez recalls the greatness of his alma mater and how the socialist Maduro government has created a “nearly abandoned,” dangerous atmosphere at the university.
In the aftermath of the arrest of Popular Will opposition leader Leopoldo López, university students have been at the heart of protests calling for an end to socialism and the freedom of political prisoners. After numerous attacks by armed Chavista gangs called colectivos, Lansberg-Rodríguez reports that the university can barely function and that a recent visit revealed that the campus was “nearly abandoned… trash was everywhere, with plastic bags [and] discarded bandanas (likely once soaked in Maalox or vinegar as a precaution against tear gas).”
The university boasts almost 50,000 students during peacetime, but Lansberg-Rodríguez found the campus mostly empty. Chavista groups had attacked the campus so many times that the school “no longer maintains even a pretense of adhering to a fixed curriculum.” In many of those attacks, armed Chavistas would enter classroom buildings to beat and rob students. In other instances, they would merely humiliate them by disrobing them publicly. The school has temporarily suspended classes.
Maduro’s government, which has been accused by most survivors of these attacks as ordering them through third-party means, refuses to defend the university using Venezuelan police because of the autonomous nature of the university. The Venezuelan Constitution bars police from entering the institution or meddling in the election of academic leaders, a plan set into place, Lansberg-Rodríguez notes, by Simón Bolívar himself. Since Maduro cannot send soldiers in to attack civilians like the Bolivarian National Guard routinely does in the streets, armed civilian gangs do that work for him, opponents allege.
Students, now deprived of their university, are making clear that they will not abandon civil disobedience as a tactic to bring attention to the human rights abuses of the Maduro regime. Spanish newspaper El País reports that students are using Holy Week as a reason to continue protesting the exclusion of the Vatican from talks between Maduro and center-left opposition leaders, from which anti-socialist groups have been entirely excluded. This Wednesday, students and faculty from the UCV protested by walking Caracas barefoot in an imitation of the Catholic tradition of walking the Stations of Cross – retreading the path that Jesus took on his way to crucifixion.
The Catholic Church has been severely critical of the Maduro regime for its human rights abuses. The head of the Catholic Church in Venezuela, Monsignor Diego Padron, accused Maduro in a public statement this month of “torture,” “persecution,” and “restriction of information,” and called for an end to “the criminalization of protest.”