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Why Are Professors Legitimizing State-Led Repression against Venezuelan Students?

By: Victoria L. Henderson - @vlhenderson - May 9, 2014, 10:19 am
University student reacts to tear gas fired by National Guard during protest
University students react to tear gas fired by National Guard during protest. Source: PanAm Post staff.

EspañolA professor’s bid to legitimize state-led repression against student protesters ought to raise concerns at any time.

But when this bid is exercised on the anniversary of a high-profile student massacre, it warrants closer scrutiny.

On May 4, forty-four years to the day that National Guard troops in Ohio stormed Kent State University and opened fire on students protesting the Vietnam War, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Affairs and Global Development published an article dismissing state-led repression against student protesters in Venezuela.

According to Susan Spronk, the international media has erroneously assailed the public with “images of ‘innocent’ student protesters — mostly from the academic bastion of the Venezuelan elite, the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) — being brutalized by state security forces.”

Spronk’s article, published in the Bullet (a periodical of the Socialist Project), questions why the press should cultivate sympathies with “right-wing” protesters when the legitimacy of the Venezuelan regime is — quite clearly for Spronk, if less so for others — backed by a valid electoral mandate.

Why, indeed.

The Ohio National Guard fire tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the commons on May 4, 1970
The Ohio National Guard fire tear gas to disperse the crowd of students gathered on the commons at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Source: Kent State University.

In the turbulent days leading up to the Kent State (and subsequent Jackson State) shootings, US Vice President Spiro Agnew offered a “modest suggestion” to the academic community: “Next time a mob of students waving their non-negotiable demands starts pitching bricks and rocks, just imagine they’re wearing brown shirts (i.e., Nazis) or white sheets (i.e., Ku Klux Klan)— and act accordingly.”

The idea that so-called hippie agitators and anarchists (or, in President Nixon’s terms, “bums”) could be gunned down indiscriminately by state forces was, in the wake of Kent State, widely repudiated, including by Agnew and, not surprisingly, by the academic community.

Today, however, what one scholar calls the lesson of Kent State — the covenant that “each student is precious” — is arguably under attack.

The latest round of student protests against Venezuela’s ailing socialist government was triggered in February, following the attempted sexual assault of a female student at Los Andes University in the western state of Táchira.

The assault was a flash point. Students took to the streets, first in San Cristóbal and then in municipalities and universities across Venezuela, to protest everything from rampant insecurity and human rights abuses to inflation, economic shortages, and – not least – the repression and criminalization of protest itself.

To date, 41 people have died and more than 800 have been injured in protest-related violence. Thousands more, including minors, have been arrested or detained.

There are causalities in both pro-government and anti-government camps. However, students and youth on the front lines have borne the brunt of state-led aggression. A new report by Human Rights Watch documents 10 cases of torture and alleges “a pattern of serious abuse” that suggests state security and armed pro-government militias have worked side-by-side to attack protesters, including on university campuses. Amnesty International has expressed similar concerns.

But Spronk is unmoved, characterizing student protesters as “elite” punks from UCV, Venezuela’s largest public university, despite empirical data indicating that the Venezuelan elite has long-held a bias against UCV graduates. Moreover, and contrary to Spronk’s suggestion, protests are not restricted to UCV. There have been 31 attacks against 18 universities in 11 states.

Given that Spronk’s research considers “consciousness of oppression as a springboard for political action” in Venezuela, one would assume she is both sensitive to oppression in its multiple forms and well-positioned to grasp the nuances of Venezuela’s increasingly fractious political landscape.

Her article in the Bullet, however, suggests otherwise.

Spronk’s decision to bid up the legitimacy of state-led repression in Venezuela on the anniversary of the Kent State shootings is more than just an exercise in poor taste; it is an ethically and factually challenged contribution to a new era of class warfare — not only in Venezuela but in Canada as well.

Attacking the press for a lack of due diligence, Spronk’s defense of the Venezuelan regime rests on the claim that international media circulated images of the protests “without bothering to fact-check, not realizing that they were actually from places like Egypt and Syria or that they depicted Venezuelan state security forces that had been disbanded two years ago.”

It should go without saying — but apparently no longer does — that the circulation of “fake” images of the Venezuelan protests has absolutely no bearing on the question of whether the force exercised by the Venezuelan state in response to student protests is justifiable.

By focusing on the limited media uptake of “fake” images from Venezuela, Spronk follows in the footsteps of other defenders of the Venezuelan regime (see, for example, here, here, and here). The strategy is to present the forgeries and misrepresentations as an exclusive tactic of the opposition, and to imply that they constitute the total available evidence of state repression, or lack thereof.

In fact, fake and misleading images have also been widely circulated by pro-government supporters and government officials in an attempt to leverage political capital (see also here).

A student at Venezuela's Central University is stripped and beaten by pro-government militia
A student at Venezuela’s Central University is stripped and beaten by pro-government militia.

And there is, sadly, no shortage of evidence (see, for example, here, here, and here) documenting attacks on student protesters by both uniformed state agents and pro-government paramilitary groups that were called into action by Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Students have been brutally attacked and forced to strip naked on campus. In one case, a student with Asperger’s was beaten by the National Guard; in another, a university was set ablaze by pro-government militants.

None of this seems enough for Spronk, who insists: “this is a revolt of the well-off, not a terror campaign by the government.”

One wonders how students at the University of Ottawa, hardly a bastion of the global indigent, should interpret Spronk’s suggestion that middle-class kids may be brutalized by state forces for a good (read: socialist) cause.

No reasonable concept of justice holds that the legitimacy of state force should be determined by the class identity of the intended target. But that does not deter Spronk, nor does it inhibit other academics who disparage student protesters in a bid to bolster the Venezuelan regime.

One US scholar, sitting thousands of miles from the front lines of the Venezuelan conflict, argues that the poor in Venezuela have a right to inflict “egalitarian brutality.” If this means the massacre of white elites, he writes, drawing on the work of C.L.R. James, “so much the worse for the whites.”

So much the worse for the academy, too, when professors adopt the “modest suggestion” of Spiro Agnew that students who rise up in protest against the government are no better than Nazis and Clansmen, and should be treated accordingly.

More than four decades after it occurred, the Kent State tragedy remains an open wound. Competing theories of cover-ups, informants, and snipers complicate the pursuit of a narrative that respects the demand for truth without compromising the possibility of reconciliation.

Thirteen seconds was all it took to claim the lives of four students at Kent State. In Venezuela, students (and others) have been facing down National Guard troops for three months in what is only the latest round of a long-standing conflict.

The protests in Venezuela, as Spronk observes, have not always been peaceful. But neither were those in Ohio, where protesters set bonfires in the streets, torched buildings, smashed windows, and peppered the National Guard with rocks and tear gas.

Scholars are still poring over evidence to determine whether troops were given a direct order to fire on students at Kent State. At a minimum, this should give pause to question why Spronk and others have moved so quickly to argue that any malfeasance on the part of Venezuela’s National Guard is due to a few bad apples, not evidence of systemic abuse.

If the Kent State tragedy and its aftermath offer any guide, those who uncritically embrace ideological warfare to legitimize state-led repression in Venezuela may find themselves on the wrong side of history. The Ohio shootings launched the descent into Watergate, which eventually destroyed the Nixon administration.

For Venezuela’s student protesters, the lesson is clear.

Victoria L. Henderson Victoria L. Henderson

A former print journalist and magazine editor, Henderson is a PhD Candidate (ABD) at Queen’s University and a director at the Institute for Social and Economic Analysis in Ontario, Canada. She holds degrees in Spanish & Latin American Studies and Geography. Follow @vlhenderson, and read more of her featured PanAm Post column, "The Northern Passage."