A chant that it would be very popular years after but that was truly the first time I heard it. My classmates turned their heads to the door and the windows, the professor rolled the blackboard market through his fingers but no one really really moved except for… yes, this blogger. As soon as I realized that it was totally impossible to see my apathetic classmates moving a finger (was even hard to know if they were alive at all), I left my desk, opened the door and followed the chants to see what was going on.
The “third floor” (which is part of the main building of my university and is basically a very long and large hallway only interrupted by the tiny, I think, main faculty and school offices of the campus) was totally filled with students. When I saw that I naively thought that my sleeping classmates could wake up soon. They were asking to the vice-chancellor to dismiss this professor. I started admiring our vice-chancellor, Luis Ugalde when I saw him standing against that huge and angry crowd saying “I can’t dismiss a professor because of his political stances. A professor can be dismissed if it has been proven that he’s academically unable, irresponsible, or if he attempts against the dignity of the students, the colleagues or the institution”- The students argued that he had insult many students during his class and that the students could not pass if they expose during the exams political opinions different to the ones the professor stands for. Ugalde replied: “Can you prove it? If you can’t then there’s nothing to do about it. A professor can’t be dismissed for political reasons. And Mr. Escarrá might think different but he’s an expert on his field”.
There was no much left to do. The law students complaint over and over about the professor with the ones who belong to other faculties and I wish I have heard more strongly the tolerance lesson our vice-chancellor gave us that day because during those first years of university, from 2002 till 2004, I was easily a prisoner of my own stupid radicalism and my own intolerance in more than one occasion. The students were asking for democracy that day, but there’s wasn’t anything actually democratic in their specific requests: to dismiss a professor because he was a Chavista (Chavez supporter)
As soon as Ugalde finished his speech, I accidentally ran with my sociology professor in the hallway. I was so embarrassed about it. I could not understand the look he gave me: if it was one of those looks of “those unbearable first year kids that are so rude and left class in the middle of an explanation…” or a look of “seems like at least one member of my class is alive”. Either way, I found out that after I left the class my professor couldn’t - and also did not wanted to- keep teaching on those circumstances, so he finished the lecture before time and asked the students to follow him to the third floor.
I bet he was more interested than anybody to see an awakening of the students because he was an important figure of the opposition back then and received a lot of threats against his life. Two years after that “third floor” episode, the Jesuits order (he was also a Jesuit) decided that it was prudent to transfer him to Spain for his safety. He’s now in the exile and mine was one of the last courses he taught in Venezuela.
Things got way more complicated after that episode since the General Strike followed and it broke, as the reader might now, many students lives and mine as well in two half. For better or for worse, the general strike of 2002-2003 was a significant moment of the recent Venezuelan political history but the students did not play a significant role during those events, for not saying that they did not play any role at all.
The first reason for this can be easily explained: although If I remember correctly the universities did not closed their doors officially, I can’t think on any university at least in Caracas having any class at all during those couple of months that strike lasted (December 2002 till early February of 2003). The gasoline shortage and the riots everywhere did not made the perfect environment for having classes.
You see, in Venezuela most of the universities and all the ones who are located in Caracas does not have student residencies on campus. The regular university student here does not leaves home for going to the university unless you live in another city. And even so, you probably go visit your parents every weekend and still call your home your parents house – never that nasty bedroom located in the loudly that you are forced to sleep in.
When the strike began, the students simply came back to their homes with their families, losing in that way the essential (when it comes to make a student movement) with their classmates. Many of them were politically active during the strike and what’s even more important: many of them actually became politically active because of the strike. You have this blogger as an example.
In my neighborhood we created a “youth brigade” that it was basically to bring some logistic support to the almost daily “Citizen assemblies” that took place at the park, plus marches and other events. The members of that brigade were as young as 13 and hardly anyone was older than 20 years old. A friend of mine, who lives in a middle class neighborhood not so distant from mine, leaded a similar youth group. Imagine how his group was like if he was 17 back then and the oldest kid of that group.
There’s no doubt that the General Strike was a period of an intense and very dramatic political socialization for many of the students who had not even reached college back then and are now a big part of the White Hand (student) movement. However, to say that the movement did not rise as an answer to the events that developed during the general strike only because the students were gathered at their homes, with their families, struggling – if they did – only with their neighbours, its hardly an enough explanation. I suspect they are deeper reasons that the reader and even myself might discover as this story continues.
About the picture: one of the third floor entrances, blocked by the students during the protest of June, 2007.