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In Venezuela, students and faculty caught in budget-driven university closures

In Venezuela, students and faculty caught in budget-driven university closures
A student at the sciences library at Central University of Venezuela, which has been closed since September because of what administrators say are funding woes. (Juan Barreto / AFP/Getty Images)

Normally buzzing with youthful high energy, professor Blas Dorta's biology classroom at Central University of Venezuela is eerily quiet. On a day when his class should be filled with 40 students, he is alone, absent-mindedly looking out a window.

The university, known by its Spanish initials, UCV, has been closed by administrators since September because of what they say is insufficient government funding. So are nine other Venezuelan public universities, leaving a total of 380,000 students in limbo.

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"As long as I can keep getting off the canvas, I will continue to struggle to stay on the job," said Dorta, 65. "But I don't expect improvement anytime soon."

In the last two years, 1,000 professors at UCV and the other public schools have quit, many leaving Venezuela for jobs in Chile, Spain, Mexico or the United States. Last semester, a lack of supplies meant Dorta's students couldn't perform the 18 experiments they needed to pass his basic biology class. Instruments have broken down or been stolen, and no repairs or replacements are in sight, he said.

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Maintenance has also been stopped on once beautiful campuses such as UCV; 3-foot-tall weeds have taken over a once-manicured quadrangle.

The school system has suffered from budget cuts and salary reductions for years, partly because of the socialist government's disdain for students on political grounds.

The current crisis stems as well from the crippling effects of a lack of cash and triple-digit inflation. Declines in the price of oil, on which Venezuela depends for 90% of government revenue, have left the country and President Nicolas Maduro's government on the brink of collapse.

"This is the worst crisis ever," Dorta said as he sat at his desk. "I've spent my whole career here. But we can no longer teach in a dignified way. We lack everything."

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The failure of professors' salaries to keep pace with the inflation rate, topping 190% this year, has reduced many academics to penury. Tenured professors such as Dorta receive a maximum annual salary of 30,000 Venezuelan bolivars, which amounts to less than $40 a month. That's hardly enough to live on in Caracas, the capital.

Down the deserted, garbage-strewn hallway of the sciences building, bathrooms are flooded and graffiti mar the walls, signs that security and maintenance staffers have not been on the job for weeks.

"It's been a gradual deterioration that has become intolerable," Dorta said of conditions at Venezuela's largest university, with 54,000 students.

Over the last decade, Venezuela's brain drain has also included the departure of thousands of professionals in the energy, manufacturing, medicine, agriculture and research fields.

Author Tomas Paez estimates that since 1999, when the late socialist President Hugo Chavez took power, more than 1.3 million Venezuelans have emigrated. Forty percent of those in the diaspora, he said, are highly educated, with master's degrees and doctorates.

The public education crisis is one more reason why Maduro and his allies may face difficulties in December elections, when all 165 national assembly seats will be up for a vote. More than two-thirds of respondents in recent polls disapproved of Maduro's performance.

UCV Rector Cecilia Garcia Arocha said the university has lost 70% of its staff since 2010, in part because of a fairly constant churn. Compounding the brain drain: Many of the teachers who leave the country are followed by their graduate students and research fellows, depriving Venezuela of future leaders and scholars, Garcia Arocha said.

Rita Anez, rector of the National Experimental Polytechnic University in Puerto Ordaz, a leading technical and research institution where classes also are suspended, said Venezuela's intellectual future is at risk.

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"There is a massive migration underway," Anez said. "We know that because more than 80% of our graduates ask that their degrees be certified with a view toward leaving the country to work. Even graduates of many years ago are coming to us to ask for similar certifications."

Chemists, industrial engineers and medical professionals are the graduate categories leading the exodus, she said. "These people don't see a future here because of the poor economy, [few] advancement possibilities and [worsening] security."

On Sept. 7, the deans of UCV's combined faculties announced the suspension of classes, saying the inadequate budget made normal academic and research functions impossible. The university's support staff — maintenance, security, food service — soon walked off the job.

Last week, professors at the 10 autonomous public universities voted overwhelmingly to support the continued suspension of classes, with 94% agreeing that "minimum teaching conditions" do not exist.

Graduate chemistry student Victor Alvino, who said four of his professors have resigned so far this year, described conditions at the university as at a low point.

"The decline of the university is more and more pronounced," said Alvino, 23. "Students have been severely affected by the lack of services and worsening security that has brought thefts of equipment and damage to the university's physical plant."

Hyperinflation has reduced the value of scholarships on which he and many fellow students depend, Alvino said. "There is widespread disillusionment which I can't even quantify."

The Maduro government has insisted since Sept. 7 that the budget was adequate and has demanded that classes resume. Early this month, University Education Minister Manuel Fernandez said he "rejected" the closure and said the government has allocated sufficient funds for university operations.

"The universities' budget for the 2016 year exceeds last year by more than 160%," Fernandez said in a statement.

The value of Venezuela's goods and services produced in 2015 is expected to shrink by 10% this year. To make up for a shortfall in revenue, the government is printing more money, causing the inflation rate to skyrocket.

Maduro's efforts to control prices and the currency exchange rate are only making matters worse, some say.

"What we are seeing is the product of an economic model that doesn't let the economic laws function as they should," said Alejandro Grisanti, head of Latin American research at Barclays investment bank in New York.

Garcia Arocha, the UCV rector, said there is a punitive element to her university's woes. The government resents the fact that it cannot dictate curriculum, admissions policy or faculty appointments as it does at the National Bolivarian University in Caracas and 30 other universities the Chavista government has formed since 2003. Venezuelan law shields the 10 autonomous universities from outside interference.

"Autonomous universities are a stone in the shoe of the government. They have never been and never will be at the service of any government, but at the service of the country," Garcia Arocha said.

UCV and other public universities have been centers of opposition to Chavista policies. As a result, professors who have voiced opposition to the government have received threats, said Victor Marquez, president of the UCV professors union. Pro-government gangs on motorcycles regularly ride through the campus to harass students and faculty members, he said.

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The declining budget trend is "a strategy of intimidation on the part of the government to deprive of us of the will to struggle," Marquez said. "Unfortunately, that strategy has produced results," in that the intimidation combined with poor salaries and working conditions have pushed many professors to seek greener pastures.

Meanwhile, biology professor Dorta said he would continue on the university staff for the time being.

"I'm here because I want to be here. I have no intention to retire, although I have opportunities in Spain where my daughter lives," Dorta said. "But I'm married to this university. As long as I can breathe, I'll stay."

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.

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