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Revolutionary University or Political Ploy? School for the Poor Draws Controversy

Revolutionary University or Political Ploy? School for the Poor Draws Controversy

CARACAS, Venezuela

Large block letters taped above the university entrance spell out “Long Live Socialism.” Fliers in the halls promote a workshop on Marxism, and posters exalt the achievements of President Hugo Chavez.

This is no ordinary university. Venezuela’s government is offering free schooling to thousands of students in a program that aims to revolutionize higher education in the country.

Critics say the so-called Bolivarian University, named after independence hero Simon Bolivar, puts more emphasis on ideology than academics.

Some professors acknowledge a political slant but say critical thinking is encouraged.

“We train our students ideologically and politically,” said Yamileth Uzcategui Gonzalez, coordinator of political and government studies. “To tell the truth, every university trains ideologically.”

She said Venezuela’s traditional universities inculcate students with their own values of personal advancement and wealth, while this university focuses instead on “collective success.”

“We hope to be an example for all of Latin America,” she said.

Others say the university is simply a piece of Chavez’s political machine, aimed at turning out graduates who support his leftist policies.

Teodoro Petkoff, a prominent Chavez critic and editor of the newspaper Tal Cual, said the university has been a failure, as shown by frequent dismissals of its top leaders and periods when classes weren’t held at all.

“It’s a biased education,” Petkoff said. He accused Chavez of creating an unnecessary parallel university system “to train partisans for his cause.”

Many of the students are poor or lower middle class, raised by parents who never attended college. Most say they never could have afforded a university education without this program.

“I feel thankful to President Chavez,” said Adelso Aranda, 30, a legal studies major whose father is a taxi driver. “It opens up many possibilities for the future.”

Students are finishing their semester this week, taking final exams, turning in papers and crowding around sheets listing their grades.

The university was founded two years ago as part of what Chavez calls his “social revolution,” seeking an alternative to a public university system he accuses of being elitist.

Classes at the Bolivarian University are informal, with professors in their 20s often leading free-flowing discussions around a circle of desks.

The main campus in Caracas was set up in a 10-story building formerly used by the state oil company. The government seized the building and converted its offices into classrooms in 2003 after firing thousands of oil workers who participated in an anti-government strike.

Since then, the university has expanded to campuses across the country and now offers majors from public health to environmental management, as well as activities from dance to soccer.

There are no entrance exams like in other Venezuelan universities. To qualify for admission, one need only present a high school diploma. In addition to free tuition, the university provides transport in a fleet of new buses and readings on CD-ROMs to help students who can’t afford books.

One CD for an ethics class includes sections on Solidarity and Ethical Values of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Poor students generally qualify for a monthly stipend of 160,000 bolivars (US$75 or euro62) to help cover expenses. Those who own cars park in a lot where vendors sell Che Guevara T-shirts next to a mural proclaiming “Against Imperialist Aggression.”

Two blocks away is the prestigious Central University of Venezuela, a public school traditionally dominated by the left that now is a bastion of opposition to Chavez.

Sitting with friends playing poker in one hallway at Central University, 17-year-old student Diego Molinari paused when asked about the Bolivarian University and confessed he had never been there.

He said he sees nothing wrong with providing free education as long as standards are maintained. The problem, he said, is that Chavez supporters “use it more as a promotion of their government.”

Most students at the Bolivarian University say they support Chavez, and many seem to share his views that U.S. “imperialism” is a menace.

In one recent class on “Latin American and Venezuelan political thought,” three students stood to give a presentation on the state of Venezuela’s national identity.

Sergio Tera, 20, said the national psyche is “totally in danger” due to influences like McDonald’s, Sony PlayStation video games and ads for Nike shoes — “American thought,” he said.

His professor, Mari Olga Paz, later touched on Chavez’s efforts to set up cooperatives as a way to promote community development. She said the class helps her students become critical thinkers.

“The idea here isn’t to indoctrinate in any way,” she said.

— Associated Press

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