The Alternative University
Lessons from Bolivarian Venezuela
Mariya P. Ivancheva



The research for this book started a turbulent decade ago. The global financial crisis had just been publicly declared and openly discussed in the mainstream media. Yet the sense of disaster and urgency that a lot of us experience today in regard to the rise of authoritarian regimes, localized wars, and armed conflicts escalating into a discreet global war, intensified economic warfare against the poor and precarious, the impending ecological catastrophe, and the global pandemics of COVID-19 was still not in the air. The Latin American “pink tide,” of which Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian socialism was a harbinger, had just peaked with the elections of Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2005; the World Social forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2006; and the rise to power of Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2007. After the demise of the Socialist Bloc in the 1990s, the disastrous embargo against Cuba, and the Gulf War in the 1990s, this new development at the turn of the twenty-first century attracted the attention of the Left in the Global North and South with hopes for the resurgence of egalitarian projects for social change amid the ashes of global neoliberal capture.

Unlike the NGO-driven transitions to liberal democracy experienced by both Latin America and Eastern Europe in the previous decades (Cohen and Arato 1992; Gagyi and Ivancheva 2019), alternative models of institutional design offered by democratic socialist regimes such as Bolivarian Venezuela were not copied from the developed world. They were genuinely novel models that inspired policy makers and practitioners to emerge from a stalemate of imagination or postcolonial melancholia (Gilroy 2006) that lamented the past of the welfare state that only served a small number of privileged citizens of the developed world (Clarke 2010). This was all the more needed given the normalization of the “there is no alternative” (TINA) dogma utilized as a solution to the crisis of capitalism in the 1970s and faced with rising cynicism: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than . . . the end of capitalism” (Jameson 1994, xii).

Public higher education has been one of the sectors most deeply affected by the crisis. By now, there is an impressive body of knowledge on this process, usually centered around the decline of the public university under intensified audit, commercialization, and privatization (Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Strathern 2000; Giroux 2007; Holmwood 2011; Shore and Wright 2015). Authors have critically examined how market-driven university reforms based on quantified indices of academic quality reinforce the global consensus of excellence modeled on Anglo-American privately endowed research universities (Frank and Meyer 2007; Marginson 2008; Lynch 2015).

To respond to the new standards, even before the global crisis of 2008, public universities around the world have turned their backs on crisis-struck communities and followed neo-managerial incentives to commercialize higher education (Wright and Rabo 2010; Lynch 2015). Quantified audit, evaluation, and rankings have led to the deterioration of university workers’ and students’ labor and learning conditions under ever-growing debt, precarious contracts, gruesome workloads, publication, fund-raising, and mobility pressures that produce insecurity over the present and anxiety about the future (Gill 2009; Lynch and Ivancheva 2015; Hall 2018). A new wave of outsourcing and automation of academic labor, fragmentation, deprofessionalization, and stratification of the profession and the unbundling of higher education (Macfarlane 2011; Komljenovic and Robertson 2016; McCowan 2017; Ivancheva and Garvey 2022) has shifted the responsibility increasingly onto individual students as fee-paying “customers” (Tomlinson 2018) and onto the public universities to train the workforce for the private sector (Boden and Nedeva 2010). Public universities have meanwhile reneged on their social mission and joined forces with corporations in profit-seeking, income-generation enterprises (Swartz et al. 2019; Ivancheva et al. 2020).

As a result, a growing reserve army of scholars and students, who enter precarious working and living arrangements, joined multiple waves of public unrest in both developed and developing countries (Cini and Guzmán-Concha 2017). Yet even the most visible critics and campaigns, which provided in-depth critique to the system, were never in a position to put forward, let alone implement, integral proposals for alternative institutional organization, curriculum, and evaluation. The production of critique around ever-growing discontent in the sector worldwide has not been matched by the production of alternative visions and scenarios for the sector.

Within this framework, the higher education reform of Hugo Chávez’s government, the subject of this book, went against the dominant “wisdoms” in the sector professing commodification, privatization, and marketization of university education (Hotson 2011). The promise of free access to everyone who wished to study, the decolonization of the curriculum, the applied fieldwork with poor communities, and the attention to intersectional inequalities in the classroom and to knowledge production and training alliances in the Global South all went against the grain of “leading” developments in higher education (Murh and Verger 2006; Ivancheva 2013). This reform offered an opportune moment to reflect on one alternative university experiment put into practice.

The book is based on my fieldwork in the period 2008–11 at the main sites of higher education reform in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas—the campus of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), the Ministry of Higher Education, the office of Misión Sucre, one of the new government programs (or missions, in symbol-heavy evangelic language) for poverty alleviation—and also at spaces of intellectual debate, teachers’ training, and remote classrooms (aldeas universitarias). It outlines the historical origins and day-to-day functioning of the colossal and quixotic effort of late president Hugo Chávez’s government to create a university that challenges national and global higher education norms.

In the book, I historicize the structural conditions and individual and collective agency behind UBV, which served as the vanguard institution of the higher education reform. I scrutinize not just the policy blueprints but also the individual and group histories behind the higher education policy. Through participant observation with actors engaged in the project of UBV—senior managers, academics, and students—I examine the complex, contradictory visions, policies, and practices but also the personal, political, and professional trajectories and actions that turn the alternative university model into a lived reality. I trace the impact of certain government decisions to legitimate some policy solutions and types of expertise while marginalizing others (Wright and Rabo 2010; Wright and Shore 2017). I show contingent choices that ascribe the alternative university model to the liberal hierarchies reproduced by the global field of higher education (Marginson 2008).

By focusing on a single Bolivarian policy—the reform of higher education—I complement more holistic discussions of the Bolivarian revolution, vernacularly called “process” (Wilpert 2007; Ellner 2008; Fernandes 2010; Cicariello-Maher 2013, 2016), with a specialized in-depth discussion of one policy and its repercussions through the rest of the Bolivarian process. The focus on policy also allows me to discuss larger-scale legal, political, and economic changes that account for historical and contemporary developments that enabled or constrained the reform of the higher education system. In this, I challenge an established way of speaking of university reform, even within the critical higher education tradition, as somewhat abstracted from the politics and social struggles of the day. Instead of focusing on universities or higher education policy as a separate and parallel set of priorities, connected to abstract “elite reproduction” or “markets” of commodities or even assets, I explain higher education reforms as part of a larger politico-economic power within a nation-state and extended into a global arena. In this context, higher education policies and reforms are related to state politics not as areas disconnected from capitalist markets but as contested fields of power where class struggle happens in a highly acute form (Carnoy and Castells 2001). Understanding higher education in this light allows a grounded, embedded analysis that disentangles the complex balance of powers and interests behind the sector. Thus, I think of the university in a much more integral way, bridging through dialogue academic subfields that often occupy parallel discursive fields: sociology of education, sociology and anthropology of the state, political economy, human geography, employment and labor relations, social movement studies, and social reproduction theory. All of these do not neatly fit into one disciplinary field, but they all bring different textures to the sides and sites of a reform aimed at wider social change.

By focusing on a single reform with deep repercussions on all aspects of the Bolivarian project for social change, the book provides a timely explanation of the human agency and structural processes behind the establishment and running of an alternative university project and, partly, of the pink tide of democratic socialism in Latin America. I place the university reform within a lineage of national and international efforts to use higher education as a catalyst for social change. Focusing on UBV—an institution of knowledge production and certification—allows me to explore forms of intellectual intervention without inflating this category.

In the book I address a set of interrelated questions: What are the opportunities for and limitations to an alternative higher education project within the contradictions and confines of advanced capitalism? How are these reflected within a socialist state project in a semi-peripheral petrol state in the Global South and in which the government holds control neither of the balance of power in the bourgeois state subservient to market logic nor of the broader transnational processes of commercialization and stratification they reinforce? How do hierarchies typical of the higher education field and accelerated by processes of globalization manifest within an uneven national university field confronted with its internal gendered and racialized class dynamic? What are the ways in which such a process is experienced, negotiated, or challenged from within: first by academics and experts who are both its proponents and its main class enemy; and then by its agents, the poor, who are also subjects of its empowerment through education?

To answer these questions, I examine the tension between enlightened and egalitarian tendencies in higher education, detailing processes that challenge or reinforce old and produce new inequalities. Instead of focusing on just one group, to depict the process in its full complex texture, I map the trajectories over time of the whole field with its various actors: experts, academics, staff, students, and community activists. I explore how existent and novel structural and symbolic hierarchies condition the relation of these different groups to each other and to the nation-state through its higher education policy. I show how the structural and agentive opportunities the new regime offers are limited by asymmetries of economic and symbolic power: ultimately, beyond certain redistributive initiatives, the class power of old educated elites stays strong while the success of the socialist project rests on its ability to produce affective reality and mobilize the social reproduction labor of women in poor communities. The global field of higher education (Marginson 2008) and the labor market of a semi-peripheral petrol state, with their own logic, hierarchies, and norms, also limit Bolivarian higher education policies. The resistance of traditional academics to both the massification of elite public universities and the accreditation of the new programs of UBV also sabotages the alternative university project. However, in the book I also show some aspects that are less dependent on global and systemic constraints and more on path dependencies of the political culture of petrol states and past socialist experiments. Political opportunities are missed, and responsibility is diffused by tendencies to start from scratch and build new parallel institutions every time resistance appears, to treat expertise as contingent and replaceable, and to circumvent critical feedback from sympathizers. Together with the objective structural constraints, these tendencies have reinforced the precariousness of Bolivarian institutions and frustrated higher education’s opportunity to serve as a key tool for national and global social change.

In theoretical terms, the book develops three main lines of inquiry that are intricately connected but can also be read independently. I address the theory of the state behind the higher education policy and show a new version of the state operating behind the Bolivarian process. This benevolent state is not present through all-encompassing infrastructural intervention or surveillance and governance technologies (Scott 1998; Das and Poole 2004). Instead, it is omnipresent in the lives of poor communities through affective power of small objects and symbols; through the familiar bodies of local female organizers; and through the politics of fear that even this minimal presence can be easily reversed. The use of surficial rather than structural reforms, however, affects the very sources of political surplus: the Bolivarian process feeds on the unpaid or underpaid reproductive labor of women in poor communities and thus on a matrisocial kinship structure typical of poor communities prior to the Bolivarian government (Hurtado 1998). This structure is also reproduced in Bolivarian higher education: while (especially male) faculty members with traditional academic and radical credentials are championed by their students and colleagues and accreditation and promotion systems, the core legitimacy of UBV’s alternative status depends on work with poor communities brokered by (mostly female) organizers and students. In this, a radical “nobility” (Bourdieu 1998) of former student militants is seen as a key source of academic and political legitimacy for UBV. Yet neither students nor new faculty have had access to traditional higher education and student militancy. And while such contradictions reproduce the asymmetries within the Bolivarian higher education field, the politics of fear, deeply rooted in the historical suppression of the Left in Latin America, is also used to diffuse responsibility for deeper irreversible reforms and defy internal critique against the Bolivarian government or UBV’s senior management.

Anthropology provides unique tools to explore the everyday reality of the institutionalization of an egalitarian policy that faces external challenge and internal critique. Using ethnographic writing, I work through the ways in which UBV’s senior managers, faculty, and students were negotiating the contradictions of the transition to a democratic socialism in their own work and life. Discussing some of these key contradictions, this book also offers possible clues to, if not fully fledged explanations of, some central internal advancements and limitations of Chavismo, which led to its current decline even before the early death of its leader and pushed many of my research participants to migrate and vote against the new president Nicolás Maduro. I also show some developments that might have already been precursors of the systemic crisis that has developed in Venezuela during Maduro’s regime. While acknowledging the external limitations posed on the mass higher education policy, the book documents some further challenges to the reform, produced by the government and its agents. Thus, this book shows how, while sparking the imagination of radical higher education policy makers and practitioners, the Bolivarian university reform has also stumbled on significant limitations and obstacles. These are only partly due to the agency of the actors engaged in the reform and to a much larger extent are produced by the structural terrain (or field) in which the reform has been set.

Field Site: Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela

The principal site of my fieldwork was the main campus of UBV in the Los Chaguaramos neighborhood in Caracas. While UBV’s 2003 inauguration was occasioned by the attempted coup d’état against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, it was also a culmination of the decades-long struggle of the Venezuelan Left to offer universal access to public services to the poor majority of the petrol state (UBV 2003; Wilpert 2007). UBV initially opened its doors to fourteen thousand students at four central facilities: Los Chaguaramos in the metropolitan area of Caracas; and Maracaibo, Punto Fijo, and Ciudad Bolivar in smaller cities (Laberinto 2004, 54). However, the program for mass access called Misión Sucre, of which UBV was a central degree-granting institution, planned for much wider access: beyond the central campus, numerous local classrooms (aldeas universitarias) accounted for an enrollment of over half a million new students. The majority of these students came from marginalized poor rural and urban communities.

One of many redistributive policies of the Bolivarian government (misiones) in the health, food, social, and cultural sectors, Misión Sucre aimed to provide rapid solutions to glaring social inequalities. Together with the programs for literacy (Robinson I), primary education (Robinson II), and secondary vocational training (Ribas) (Wilpert 2007), Misión Sucre made higher education de facto universal. Controlled from Caracas’s Misión Sucre Foundation, based at the Ministry of Higher Education, the program aimed to redistribute public funding to a network of degree-granting university facilities. UBV, the Military Academy (UNEFA), and the Maritime Academy (UMC) ran their own programs but also served the students of thousands of “municipalized” aldeas universitarias following the Cuban example, which took over night shifts of schools, community centers, main squares of villages, and living rooms all around the country. UBV was responsible for half the students certified through the program. It had campuses with central facilities (sedes) in a number of Venezuelan cities, and its students at sedes and aldeas received stipends.

As a response to the historical struggles for social change in a country characterized by extreme social inequalities, UBV was a university with deep political roots. When oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early twentieth century, the former Spanish colony shifted from one single crop (cocoa) to another (crude), but its so-called Dutch disease economy remained subject to neocolonial global market interests served by creole elites (Coronil 1997). Even after the end of strong-man feudal regimes (caudillismo) and the 1950s dictatorship, the knowledge-intensive oil industry was served by a handful of elite public universities (Lopéz, Canino, and Vessuri 2007). In response to the Academic Renovation student protests in 1969 when the University Law (1970) created new public and private universities, a two-tier system was created under the guise of massification. A handful of prestigious but politically unruly “autonomous” universities were outnumbered by centrally controlled “experimental” ones. Because of the deep political and economic crises in the 1980s and the commitment of liberal governments to Washington consensus reforms, budget cuts across the public sector stranded massification (Lander 1996; Stephany 2006). Public universities were pushed to introduce an entry exam and fees, and the system was destined to privatization, which never happened as Left-leaning academics and students rioted at autonomous universities and joined popular protests such as the Caracazo (Lopéz 2005). This violently suppressed rebellion against price hikes in February 1989, days after the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was signed, galvanized contention (López-Maya 2002), including a 1992 military rebellion. Its leader, Hugo Chávez, assumed political responsibility and after an eventually amnestied prison sentence won a democratic election in 1998 (Ellner 2008).

The creation of UBV and its aldeas four years later came at a specific critical juncture (Kalb and Tak 2005). The new university was eventually founded after traditional universities stayed silent or supported the 2002 coup and the early 2003 strike by twenty thousand high-skilled workers in the national company Petrol of Venezuela (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. PDVSA), who sabotaged oil production (Wilpert 2007). Staged by key commercial actors connected to chambers of commerce (FEDECAMARAS), supported by the opposition and mainstream media, and funded by US developmental agencies (Golinger 2005), these events showed that the Venezuelan rich, predominantly white, and pro-American elite negated the will of the democratic majority. This was a chilling lesson for many left-wing academics. Initially skeptical about the new president, they eventually recognized their own values in his emancipatory anti-imperialist rhetoric and progressive policies. Ironically, by that time the autonomy that the academic Left had gained through bloody struggles in the past was used against its new projects. Entrenching themselves at traditional universities and state agencies, anti-Chavista academics and experts blocked government reforms on their turf. When UBV emerged as a parallel “experimental” university, they denied its accreditation, thus reinforcing the two-tier system.

Nevertheless, the establishment of UBV had strategic significance. Accommodated in an emptied Venezuelan Petrol (PDVSA) office in Caracas, UBV’s main campus became a symbol of the Bolivarian Revolution or “process”—a name given by Chávez to the path to democratic socialism he gradually embraced. UBV addressed three urgent needs at once: to produce new loyal educated cadres, to universalize university access, and to decolonize knowledge production. Massification accelerated at an unprecedented rate. Between 1990 and 1998 the number of students enrolled in public higher education was rather stagnant, but from 1998 to 2007 it rapidly increased. In 1998 some 44 percent of higher education students were enrolled in private institutions. Between 2000 and 2007 the private institutions increased by only 72 percent, while the public ones saw 231 percent growth: by the end of this period, the latter had 2,135,146 students, of which Misión Sucre hosted over 500,000 (González Deluca 2008). By 2021 over 600,000 were reported to have graduated from Misión Sucre alone (VTV 2021). It had 1,317 aldeas (INE 2013, 94) in 2013 and 2,400 in 2021. In official documents, all students admitted into programs of UBV and the aldeas were called triumphant (triunfadores). In 2010 alone 464,368 were reported as completing their education in the aldeas of Misión Sucre (INE 2013, 102). That same year, 10,159 graduated with a midterm exit as a Superior University Technician (Técnico Superior Universitario, TUS), and 44,051 graduated with a BA (Licenciatura) (INE 2013, 99). In two years’ time, the number of TUS graduates tripled to 30,679, and Licenciatura graduates grew to 63,896 (INE 2013, 99).

UBV’s founding document and mission statement, the Rector’s Paper (Documento Rector), presented alternative higher education based on the principles of participative protagonist democracy (UBV 2003; Lugo 2017). It pledged to achieve national integration in two ways: economic, by giving poor students access to the labor markets; and social, by opening the university’s doors to the wider community. Its aim was to develop a model to serve the postcolonial space and the Global South. To match this ambition, UBV was based on the principles of liberation theology as adopted in the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire (UBV 2003). It aimed to challenge the vertical power dynamics in the classroom between “masters” and “disciples.” UBV’s curricular design also opposed disciplinary compartmentalization (UBV 2003): all subjects were related to the envisaged structural transformation of the country, and all fields had to work toward it through the core module “citizenship project” (Proyecto Bolivariano de Nueva Ciudadania). In this mandatory module throughout their studies, students were to use their specialist knowledge in collective community-organizing initiatives in an urban or rural poor community. This was to empower the poor to mobilize and understand the value of their own knowledge, not as secondary but as a key to social transformation.

UBV’s launch by Presidential Decree 2517 on 18 July 2003 and hundreds of thousands of new places opened in Misión Sucre’s programs required the recruitment of thousands of faculty members to teach the new students. To create a legitimate university, all faculty members needed to have some experience in higher education. This was a challenge in a country that had a scarcity of academically trained cadres, trained its program experts abroad, and had a limited number of postgraduate programs hosted by traditional universities (López, Canino, and Vessuri 2007). Due to their resistance to the Bolivarian project, not many university-educated Venezuelans wished to join UBV. Many treated it with contempt. UBV founders also wished to recruit politically committed people who were loyal to the government and understood the historical need of a mass higher education project. The new Bolivarian educators, often the first generation into higher education and trained at traditional universities, underwent both intensive teaching programs that often enrolled mature students freshly out of the literacy programs and intensive postgraduate training to develop academic profiles that allowed UBV to accredit its programs. Once hired, they also had to undergo an awareness-raising program (sensibilización) and a competitive job-application (concurso de oposición) process to get confirmed in their jobs.

A high school diploma or its Misión Ribas equivalent was a minimum requirement for students to enroll. After submission of proof of having finished high school studies, students went through the so-called Program for University Initiation (Programa de Iniciación Universitaria), consisting of introductory courses where gaps in their entry knowledge were addressed in three mandatory units: language and communication, mathematics, and a shorter course on Venezuela in the global context (MES 2006, 6–7). The program was not graded, and even if some students were encouraged to take the introductory classes again, no one was failed. After they passed, all students were eligible to attend classes. While other students were not discouraged, most students came from previously excluded social groups who were also the target electorate of the government and beneficiaries of its social programs: workers, peasants, indigenous people, and descendants of former slaves brought by colonial powers from the African continent. UBV aimed to address historic discrimination by giving these groups, exposed to abysmal poverty, long-denied access to the education and labor markets.

The first three programs UBV opened were legal studies, media and communications, and environmental policy, soon followed by social management, public health, education, politics and government, architecture, medicine, information technology, agrarian studies, and petrol studies. Students were encouraged to take computer literacy classes and to train in languages. Except for the usual English, French, Portuguese, and Italian, not only languages such as Chinese and Arabic but also sign language, Braille, and later on indigenous languages such as Wayuunaiki, Warao, Pemón, and Kariña were made freely available to students, at least at the UBV campus in Caracas (YVKE 2016). Students were also exposed to extracurricular classes in arts (cinema, dance, poetry) and to an ample range of political events. Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean identities were not only welcome but also celebrated at UBV during special festive occasions, dedicated discussions, and special attention in the curriculum to the histories and culture of their communities. The presence in almost every classroom of students with disabilities, treated with respect and assisted by faculty and peers through special programs and events, made UBV feel inclusive, not in discourse only.

In practical terms, the classes at UBV’s main campus in Los Chaguaramos, Caracas, where I carried out a significant proportion of my fieldwork, took place in three shifts. The morning shifts were mostly attended by young Venezuelan and other Latin American students on a scholarship who had the resources and free time or by elderly people who studied after their retirement. The afternoon shift was attended mostly by part-time working young students and by single mothers who could afford to leave their children with a member of their family or community. Some adult learners working at the university facility as janitors, canteen staff, and in other maintenance capacities also took the afternoon classes. The evening shift was mostly attended by full-time blue- and white-collar workers. Conscious of this, faculty members tried to treat students from all age cohorts and backgrounds in an equitable manner, taking individual circumstances into consideration. The fact that students from all walks of life and people from up to three generations, sometimes within the same family, would attend the same departments and even the same classroom made for thrilling discussions. UBV and aldeas of Misión Sucre supported registered students with full scholarship. In 2009, the scholarship was 200 Bolivares Fuertes (BsF) a month, the equivalent of US$40, while the national minimum salary was 900 BsF, then equivalent to US$180. UBV’s central sedes offered free access to a canteen and further services, and students were also subject to other redistributive policies concerning health, food, and other items.

To study this reality, I spent most of my days around the UBV campus in Caracas, attending classes, extracurricular activities, and events and speaking to students, faculty, staff, and senior managers. Occasionally, I would also go to the Ministry of Higher Education and related agencies to conduct interviews, go to aldeas in and beyond Caracas, or attend Proyecto trips with groups from UBV-Caracas. By the time I finished my fieldwork, some of my interlocutors had become friends with whom I would hang out for coffee or meals or attend political and cultural events. Thus, the presentation of the fieldwork that follows is one of a multisited ethnography (Marcus 1995) rather than a study of a bounded community. It shows—in the tradition of anthropology of policy—the different spaces, faces, and phases of a complex reform. I have also combined ethnographic analysis with review of historical and secondary materials, as well as a political economy based on the material realities of my field site as positioned within the global field of higher education. Thus, while I spent a lot of time in and around UBV’s key campus, each one of my ethnographic chapters works through different scales at which the reform is implemented and enacted, groups that put it into practice and embody it, and the symbolic and material environment in which the policy process is immersed.

Clearly, this blueprint serves more to designate some lines of development of the institution and thus my inquiry rather than to paint, on its own, the complex picture of my field site. In the rest of the book, and the following brief summary of the chapters, I discuss some of the advancements but also serious challenges that UBV encountered from its early days. This description is important to understand what I think was a truly magnanimous effort for socially just higher education. The critical observations and points that follow are less to critique the project itself than to show the limitations that anyone who attempts an alternative university project such as UBV might face when putting such a blueprint into practice within the confines of advanced capitalism.