Defining Democracy Origins

Origins II – Venezuelan Education Reform

On December 23, 2010, Venezuela’s National Assembly passed the controversial Ley de educación universitaria (University Education Law, LEU). Their passage of the bill came just days before the Christmas recess and the beginning of the 2011-2015 term, in which the almost entirely pro-Chávez assembly would be replaced by one in which the opposition had gained just over forty percent of the seats (Suggett, “Venezuelan University Law…”). The same day, protesters took to the streets, voicing their disapproval of this piece of socialist legislation through slogans like, “No me da gana una educación a la cubana” (I’m not for Cuban-style education), and “Cambio Navidad por Libertad” (I’ll trade Christmas for liberty) (“3 heridos” and “Chávez veta”). Soldiers and police officers fired rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse protestors in Caracas, injuring three (“3 heridos” and “Chávez veta”). Meanwhile, supporters of the law staged their own demonstrations, celebrating what they believed to be its democratic solutions to inequalities and corruption within the university system. The leader of one pro-Chávez student organization even went so far as to claim that the law’s opponents saw education as “a commodity, not a human right” (trnsltd. in Suggett, “Venezuelan University Law”). The ratification of the law was short-lived; just two weeks after the National Assembly submitted the LEU to President Hugo Chávez for enactment, he announced his veto, due to its polarized reception (Flores and “Chávez veta”). This was not the first time in recent Venezuelan history that education reform had sparked such debate. The August 14, 2009 passage of the Ley orgánica de educación (Organic Education Law, LOE) was followed by the protests of thousands of students, professors and journalists (Primera). In accusations that would be echoed during protests of the LEU, opponents cited the dominant role given to the state for the administration of the education system. Accusations evolved into more fantastic claims, as stories circulated that the LOE allowed the government to take custody of children (“Nueva ley de educación”).

This political context sparked my interest in Venezuelan education reform, which I ended up electing for the topic of my semester paper for Comparative Systems in the spring semester of 2012. As I (belatedly) observed the two sides of this debate on education take up “Socialist!” as a battle cry that meant two very different things, I became incredibly interested in understanding the power of language, what it is about language that unites and divides us, and why labels are taken to represent absolute truths about the cores of our identities… Words, after all, are such small things. In this case, since the claims made by both sides regarding the LOE and LEU seemed to be founded on opponents’ and supporters’ fundamental beliefs about socialism being either inherently undemocratic or inherently democratic, my research centered on the relationship between socialism and democracy. Specifically, rather than viewing the two as concepts that existed on polar ends of a broad continuum, as debates of this kind will often have one believe, I sought to demonstrate that socialism and democracy have malleable and overlapping definitions that depend on one’s personal beliefs and attitudes, on political and historical contexts, in short, on the narrative(s) to which one subscribes. In order to demonstrate the subjective nature of positions presented as absolute truths in this debate, I carried out comparisons of the laws against the arguments brought forth against them and those made in their support to determine whether claims made by one side or the other were disingenuous or false. I then analyzed the similarities between the content of the laws to Chávez’s overall narrative brand, using Mona Baker’s discussion of narrative theory in Translation and Conflict as a framework for that analysis. This latter examination will be featured in a post to come and will present an explanation to account for the multiple conflicting truths that seemed to exist around ideas about socialism and democracy in Venezuela. This examination will speak to Chávez’s narrative prowess as well.

Socialism is defined in The Oxford American College Dictionary as “a political and economic theory that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole” (“Socialism”). Chávez announced his plan to invent a Socialism for the Twenty-First Century in a 2005 speech before the attendees of a Social Debt Summit (Chávez Frías). And based on the policies of his government, including the nationalization of key industries like the oil sector, Chávez’s overall framework for Venezuelan socialism seemed to be one in which the government served as the means through which the collective ownership of goods and services was administered. As two pieces of legislation enacted well after Chávez’s announcement to carry out his plan to transform Venezuelan society to a socialist model, the LOE and the LEU certainly contained language reminiscent of Chávez’s speeches on the topic. Opponents to both laws therefore likely carried that narrative baggage with them as they encountered and reacted to the tone of these pieces of legislation. Their criticism, however, was not simply based on the overall context of the laws. Opponents argued that the LOE and the LEU 1) established greater government control over education, thereby threatening university autonomy, and 2) authorized socialist indoctrination (“3 heridos”). A comparison of these claims to the content of the laws themselves demonstrates that both arguments were founded in varying degrees on the plans and objectives discussed within the LOE and the LEU. The LOE indeed established comprehensive government control over the education system. However, as organic law, or “legislation of the highest jurisdiction” (Haywood 233), the LOE outlined the framework for governmental administration over education, rather than assigning any specific policies for the realization of that involvement.[1] The LEU, then, would have worked within the framework of the LOE to establish more definitive regulations to guide governmental control within the context of the university system.[2]

One can certainly understand where the overall tone of the laws and language on government control over education—along with Chávez’s reputation—would lead opponents to fear state-mandated socialist indoctrination as well. The veracity of this latter claim was, however, not so easy to definitively establish. In terms of the LOE, at least, the claim seems to have been exaggerated. While the LOE subtly alludes to its socialist origins, it also expressly states, “la educación universitaria está abierta a todas corrientes del pensamiento” [university education shall be open to all schools of thought] (Article 33). On the other hand, the language within the LEU was much more explicit. Article 3.2 of that law defined university education as an institution “al servicio de la transformación de la sociedad, en función de la consolidación de la soberanía, defensa integral e independencia nacional… 2017 el fortalecimiento del Poder Popular… en marco de la construcción de una sociedad socialista” [at the service of transforming society, consolidating sovereignty, defense and national independence… [and] strengthening the power of the people… within a framework for the construction of a socialist society]. Declarations like that one, along with references to the nationalization of inventions created within universities (Article 11.2n), meant that the LEU certainly represented the potential for a considerable shift toward the implementation of socialist practices and teachings. Still, governments regularly intervene in educational systems, and implementing socialist practices does not necessarily engender indoctrination. Opponents’ claim then seems to have been based in part on conjectures about the objectives of this law and Chávez’s government overall.

While opponents questioned the societal trajectory established by the LOE and the LEU, supporters believed that the laws were in fact very democratic. And because they broadly identified with Chávez, and therefore with his socialist cause, they may well have applauded greater government control over the education system and the shift to socialist thought within the university system. Still, their support seemed to have stemmed overall from those portions of the laws that addressed corruption and unequal access to education within the university system. They believed that thanks to the LEU, for example, university education would be defined by broader participation and greater inclusivity—two concepts traditionally associated with democracy (Suggett, “Venezuelan University Law…”). So, could these pieces of legislation be considered democratic? To answer that question, we first need a working definition of democracy, for which I turned to Georg Sørensen’s discussion in “Democracy and Democratization.” While Sørensen points to a range of concepts and characterizations by a number of theorists, for the purposes of this current discussion, we’ll work with a definition which combines the conceptions set forth by David Held and Robert Dahl. This conception considers democracy to be a political system which maximizes 1) “meaningful and extensive competition” among political organizations, and 2) the people’s “political, civil, economic and social rights”; their participation in society; and their control over their livelihoods and lives (Sorenson 442-443, emphasis in the original).

On the whole, the political context in which the LOE and the LEU were passed largely discredits any claims that could be made about their democratic nature. As previously noted, the National Assembly (AN) that passed these laws was made up almost completely of Chávez supporters, which means that the “meaningful and extensive competition” so essential to democracy did not take place in the production of that law. Moreover, in the case of the LEU, the AN even appeared to push the law through before the start of the new term to avoid competition with opposition legislators that would shortly join the assembly (Suggett, “Venezuelan University Law…”). Yet, when moving beyond the context to the actual content of the laws, one finds that the LOE and the LEU indeed included provisions to ensure greater participation of the general populace in the education system. The language of the LOE, for example, includes references to populations historically underemphasized within Venezuelan society, establishing greater inclusivity in terms of gender (Article 8), and for the indigenous (Article 27) and other traditionally excluded populations (Articles 28 & 29). For example, Article 8 breaks Spanish-language conventions followed throughout the Spanish-speaking world to explicitly refer to both boys and girls being afforded equal opportunities. It states, “El Estado… garantiza la igualdad de condiciones y oportunidades para niños, niñas, adolescentes, hombres y mujeres” [The State guarantees equal conditions and opportunities for boys, girls, adolescents, men and women] (Article 8, emphasis added). Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the masculine plural form is used to refer to groups of both genders, and as such, niños would have sufficed to refer to both boys and girls in that statement. And more practically, the LOE included provisions for the implementation of a more equitable admissions process (Article 35). The LEU spoke directly to greater participation as well, establishing Consejos de Transformación Universitaria, or Councils for University Transformation (Article 10). These councils, while controversial, would have included a broad range of participants, including spokespeople for students, professors and workers, who would have worked collaboratively toward the objective of transforming of the university system.[3]

In “Democracy and Democratization,” Sørensen notes, “In the debate about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, the liberalist tradition maintains that only a capitalist system can provide the necessary basis for liberty and democracy, [while] [t]he Marxist tradition rejects this view and argues that capitalism must be replaced by socialism as the necessary basis for democracy” (Sørensen 442). The debate on education reform in Venezuela can certainly be described by that statement. What Sørensen alludes to here are the fundamental beliefs about values and identity that are aroused in debates of this kind. Beyond a simple feeling of disinclination to engage with the opposition—whatever side—in this and similar debates, conflicting associations and narratives activated by labels such as socialist or chavista predispose debate participants to view their opposition in very specific ways, influencing and indeed potentially dismantling the ability to participate in meaningful deliberation. Throughout his presidency, Chávez demonstrated a deep, perhaps innate, understanding of how that effect of language could be leveraged for political gain. And that was his narrative prowess: the ability to divide and mobilize, all through language. The veto of the LEU was truly one of the oppositions’ few victories during Chávez’s presidency, despite governmental corruption, budgetary secrecy, and the bypass of democratic processes in the implementation of laws and policies. To begin to account for how that can be, and why the ability to polarize through language is so powerful, we’ll turn next time to Mona Baker’s discussion of narrative theory.


[1] Article 5 of the LOE, for instance, establishes Venezuela as an Estado Docente, or an Educator State, responsible for ensuring education as a universal human right governed by such principles as cooperation, solidarity and co-responsibility. Article 6 then indicates those elements of the education system to be governed by the state. For example, Article 6.2 indicates that the state will regulate, supervise and control the university subsystem’s budgetary efficiency (Article 6.2b), the creation and operation of education institutions (Article 6.2d), employment processes such as hiring, promotions, and layoffs in both the public and private education sectors (Article 6.2f) and the creation of and funding for educational programs and projects (Article 6.2j). Further, Article 6.3 states that the Estado Docente shall plan, execute and coordinate policies and programs to achieve a new model of education (Article 6.3e) and to permanently update the national curriculum, scholarly texts and educational resources (Article 6.3g). The article also indicates that the state will create policies and programs for accreditation and certification (Article 6.3h), the creation of an effective and efficient administration (Article 6.3j), student admissions in universities (Article 6.3l) and the statistical analysis of student populations of universities (Article 6.3m).

[2] Article 11 of the LEU deals extensively with the Ministry of Education’s role in the education system, which is said to include those aspects already authorized by the LOE. Article 11.2 spokes to the regulation, supervision and control of the state over admissions and enrollment (Article 11.2e and i), the creation and development of undergraduate and graduate programs of study (Article 11.2d), awarding and recognition of grades and titles (Article 11.2t and u) and the use of government aid and resources (Article 11.2l). This article also dealt with the nationalization of any products, inventions or patents created within university institutions (Article 11.2n). Article 11.3 established the Ministry of Education’s control over the planning, coordination and implementation of programs for the transformation of fundamental university processes (Article 11.3d), the development of programs of study (Article 11.3e) and processes for the evaluation and control of university institutions (Article 11.3h). The article also referred to government control over the distribution of budgets (Article 11.3r).

[3] The LEU indicates that the Consejos de Transformación Universitaria would operate at both the national and state level and that members would include the Minister of Education, council coordinators, university rectors, and spokespeople for students, administrators, professors and workers (Article 22). The responsibilities of these councils would have included creating mechanisms for community involvement in the transformation of the university system (Article 21.1), proposing educational programs, projects and actions for the development of that system (Article 21.4) and working collaboratively with the Ministry of Education to develop initiatives (Article 21.8). Opponents criticized Consejos Comunales in general. For example, Orlando Alzuru, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers, expressed the belief that university councils would be used as an instrument to consolidate the power of Chavez’s socialist project, since participants would likely be predominantly pro-Chávez. He called for the participation of educators to mitigate the influence of pro-Chavez participants (“LOE ‘contempla entrega’…”).


Works Consulted

“3 heridos durante protestas contra nueva ley universitaria en Venezuela.” El Universo 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.

Chávez Frías, Hugo. “Discurso del presidente de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frías, con motivo del acto de inauguración de la IV Cumbre de la deuda social y cara social de las Américas.” 2005: “Año del salto Adelante” hacia la construcción del socialismo del siglo XXI: Selección de discursos del presidente de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frías. Caracas: Despacho del Presidente, 2005. 151-188. PDF.

De Lourdes Vásquez. “Aprobada en segunda discusión Ley Orgánica de Educación.” El Universal 14 Aug. 2009. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.

“Chávez veta nueva Ley de Educación Universitaria.” El Universal 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.

Flores, Ricardo. “VENEZUELA: Protestors force Chávez to rescind new law.” University World News 30 Jan. 2011. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.

Haywood, Louise M (2009). “Legal and Financial Translation.” Thinking Spanish translation: a course in translation method, Spanish to English. London: Routledge. Print.

Ley Orgánica de Educación. Pub. L. 13 Aug. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2012.

“LOE ‘contempla entrega’ de colegios a consejos comunales.” Bolétin Digital Universitario 8 Aug. 2009. University of Carabobo. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

“Nueva ley de educación no contempla que el Estado asumirá patria potestad de los niños.” Noticias 24 10 Jun. 2009. Web. 11 May 2012.

Primera, Maye. “Estudiantes y periodistas protestan contra la ley de educación chavista.” El País 15 Aug. 2009. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.

Proyecto de ley de educación universitaria. Pub. L. 23 Dec. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2012.

“Pueblo venezolano apoya la Ley Orgánica de Educación.” Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela. PSUV, 13 August 2009. Web. 19 October 2015.

“Socialism.” The Oxford American College Dictionary. 2002. Print.

Sørensen, Georg. “Democracy and Democratization.” Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective. Eds. Leicht, Kevin T. and J. Craig Jenkins New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2010. 441-458. Web. 28 Apr 2012.

Suggett, James (2009, Aug 21). “Venezuelan Education Law: Socialist Indoctrination or Liberatory Education?” Venezuelanalysis 21 Aug. 2009. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.

Suggett, James (2010, Dec 24). “Venezuelan University Law Creates Student Bill of Rights, ‘Democratizes’ Higher Education.” Venezuelanalysis 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.

“Venezuela: reprimen a miles de estudiantes que rechazan nueva ley universitaria.” América Economía 24 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 Apr. 2012.


Photo credits, clockwise from upper left:

Pueblo venezolano apoya la Ley Orgánica de Educación, PSUV, 13 August 2009

Sí por la Ley Orgánica de la Educación, Juventud Rebelde, n.d.

Cambio Navidad por Libertad, El Universal, 24 December 2010

LOE = PSUV Thought Control, Google search: “Ley organica de educacion protesta Venezuela”, 19 October 2015

Vamos pa’ clase, PSUV, 14 September 2009

Various Protest Slogans, El Universal, 4 January 2011

Alaina Brantner holds an MA in Spanish to English Translation from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She serves as a Director for MATI and is an active member of the ATA. Alaina currently resides in Milwaukee, WI, USA.


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