Venezuela: Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Charles Gradnitzer

“Anybody familiar with Stalinism will know the technique; figures record yet another triumphant over-fulfilment of the five-year plan while the peasants drop dead of starvation in the fields.”

NCAFC held its AGM last weekend in Birmingham where Student Broad Left – the student front of Socialist Action – proposed a motion so absurd that only the four members of Student Broad Left present at the NCAFC conference voted in favour of it.

In their motion “Venezuela shows there is an alternative: free education as a right", Student Broad Left claim that:

“One amazing achievement has been the eradication of illiteracy with 1.6 million adults having learnt to read and write, two-thirds of whom are women.”

This incredible achievement is made more amazing by the fact that, according to the 2001 census, there were only 1.08 million illiterate adults in Venezuela (Table 1). In fact, the number of illiterate adults in Venezuela has never exceeded 1.49 million since Venezuela began collecting statistics in 1936 (Table 1).

The “eradication of illiteracy” is a claim that seems to be at odds with the UNESCO report [1] mentioned later in their motion which places adult illiteracy at 5% or indeed the information from the 2011 Venezuelan Census which also places adult illiteracy at 5% [2].

“Free education at all levels, including university, is a constitutional right.”

“Free education at all levels” has been a “constitutional right” in Venezuela since at least 1961 and not, as it was claimed by SBL, something bestowed on the Venezuelan people by Hugo Chavez and the ruling PSUV party when they wrote the 1999 constitution. From the 1961 Constitution [3]:

“Article 78. All persons have a right to an education. The State shall create and maintain schools, institutions, and services sufficiently endowed to ensure an access to education and to culture, with no other limitations than those deriving from vocation and aptitudes.

Education provided by public institutions shall be free at all levels. However, the law may establish exceptions with respect to higher and special education, where persons with means are concerned.”

It’s also worth noting that Simon Bolivar attempted to institute free education in Venezuela at the beginning of the 1800s, although it was never implemented in his lifetime. However, in 1870 President Antonio Guzman passed the “Decreto de Instrucción Pública, Gratuita y Obligatoria” or “Decree of Free, Public and Compulsory Education” [4].

A fact Fiona Edwards – of Student Broad Left – seemed to be unaware of as she wrung her hands in disapproval when this was pointed out by Latin American activist, Thais Yanez, as she spoke in opposition to SBL’s motion. Thais Yanez’ took time to write an open letter about Latin America and the NCAFC conference, which I’d urge people to read.

Not content with simply being ignorant of the history of country she professes to be so inspired by she then took to the internet to accuse NCAFC, including people like Thais who spoke against the motion, of “euro-centric chauvinism” and “arrogance”:

“From a past marked by educational exclusion, UNESCO figures show Venezuela now has the 5th highest level of university enrolment in the world, at 85%. This is almost double that of Britain, where only 43% of young people are enrolled in higher education.”

Nowhere does UNESCO claim that university enrolment in Venezuela is 85%. Nor does it claim that Venezuela is fifth in the world.

Where, then, does this figure originate? The only official source that claims this is the state-run news agency, Agencia Venezolana de Noticias [5], which is controlled by the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information. But even if the figures had come from UNESCO, it would be absurd to compare Venezuela’s Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) to the UK’s Net Enrolment Rate (NER) because these are two totally different measures of enrolment rates.

So not only is the claim factually inaccurate, it’s also misleading.

The Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) in Venezuela was 38% in 2002 [6] and 57% in 2007 [1]. Then in 2008 and 2009 it jumped to 79%. At first glance this is an incredible achievement.

In 10 years Venezuela managed to double their GER, putting it above that of the UK for the first time in 20 years.

This is where the similarity between the Soviet Union’s record breaking year of coal production and the PSUV’s incredible feat becomes apparent.

The problem is that tertiary enrolment does not refer to university enrolment; it refers to tertiary education courses. According to the report submitted to the UN by the Venezuelan Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Educación (Ministry of Education) [7] the figures for Venezuela’s Tertiary GER include the hundreds of thousands of illiterate people enrolled in tertiary reading, writing, and arithmetic programs by “Mission Robinson I and II”, as well as hundreds of thousands of adults targeted by “Mission Sucre” which enrolled adult learners onto basic science, petroleum, and agriculture courses taught by undergraduate teachers at the new universities and polytechnics built under “Mission Alma Mater”.

Many of the courses taught at the polytechnics and experimental universities in Venezuela are technical or vocational, intended to prepare people for a life working in a specific industry. For example, the National Experimental University of the Armed Forces’ (UNEFA) undergraduate degrees are in Agriculture, Civil and Military Studies, Engineering, Tourism, and Sugar Manufacturing. In 2009, UNEFA accounted for 11% (235,000) of people enrolled in tertiary education.

Given that the GER of Venezuela remained between 20% and 30% for 20 years until around 2003-2005, when Mission Robinson, Sucre, and Alma Mater introduced hundreds of thousands of illiterate students and adult learners into full or part-time tertiary education, it is highly probable that it has only increased its Net Enrolment Rate marginally, if at all.

In the UK we’re already seeing academic freedom curtailed in order to tailor courses to meet the needs of big business. The polytechnics and experimental universities of Venezuela in which most students are enrolled are precisely the sort of thing the student movement and trade unions like the UCU are fighting against.

The UK doesn’t have a million illiterate people it can enrol on adult education courses in order to replicate the increase in enrolment rates we’ve seen in Venezuela and short of enrolling hundreds of thousands of adults onto night classes in threading and basket weaving there is not much the UK can do to replicate the “Chavez Model”.

Student Board Left didn’t just limit their intervention to the conference floor; members also took to twitter after the conference to make more, equally bizarre claims:

Venezuela has the most progressive labour laws in the world if you gloss over the fact that trade union elections are called, organised, and supervised by the government [8], if you ignore the 256 documented violations of trade union freedom over the last two years [8] [9], the severe penalties against the right to strike and peaceful demonstrations in the Venezuelan Penal Code [8], and the minimum requirement of 100 workers to form a union [8].

We must also ignore the fact that the that in the last few years police shot dead two striking Mitsibushi workers [10], the general secretary of the Sintraferrominera Ironworkers’ Union, Rubén González, was sentenced to 7 years in prison for organising a strike because he obstructed the “freedom to work” [11], and the leader of the Partido Socialismo y Libertad, Orlando Chirino, was laid off from his job at the PDVSA as political reprisal for his opposition to Chavez [12].

Perennial cuts enthusiast and member of Student Broad Left, Aaron Kiely, then weighed in with his opinion; those that oppose Chavez are on the side of imperialism and the white Venezuelan elite against the working class and oppressed groups.

It’s hard to see how Chavez is not on the side of US imperialism when he presides over a state that engages in joint ventures with American oil giants and told Fortune Magazine “Foreign corporations should rest assured and have faith in our laws and in our government. We’re doing very good business with them. Almost all the oil companies in the world are in Venezuela — Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, Petrobras, Statoil, Shell.”

It’s hard to see how Chavez is against the white Venezuelan elite when he allows their property and businesses to remain in their hands, when he allows them to continue to exploit the Venezuelan working class, when he perpetuates the repressive trade union laws that prevent workers organising against them, and when he uses the National Guard to break strikes. Perhaps it’s in the same way that Councillor Kiely is “against” the cuts in that he refuses to vote against them.

Finally, Socialist Action and Student Broad Left refused to back independent trade unionist and Venezuelan revolutionary socialist, Orlando Chirino, in the presidential elections. Instead they chose to back former army colonel and bourgeois reactionary, Hugo Chavez.

Who are the real champions of Imperialism and the Venezuelan Bourgeoisie; NCAFC or SBL?

Both Britain and Venezuela face big challenges in widening access to and improving higher education, we must look to international solidarity between British and Venezuelan students and workers as part of a common struggle to achieve this, rather than massaging the figures to make Chavez's regime look like a model of socialism when it is not.

We can and should look to Venezuela for inspiration, but it is not Chavez and the PSUV to whom we must look, it is to the radical student and workers that took to the streets in the 1990s and to working class socialists like Orlando Chirino and the radical sections of the new student movement that began in 2007 who support neither Capriles nor Chavismo; but independent working class socialism.


Table 1 Illiterate Population and Illiteracy Rates, National Censuses, 1936-2001
Source: “Encuesta de hogares por muestreo, 2006” from the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas, Venezuela.










15 and over









Illiteracy Rate










25 and Over









Illiteracy Rate










1. Education For All Global Monitoring Report. UNESCO. [Online] [Cited: 10 December 2012.]

2. Resultados Basicos Censo 2011. Instituto Nacional de Estadística de Venezuela. [Online] [Cited: 2010 December 2012.]

3. El Congreso de la República de Venezuela Constitución de 1961. [Online] [Cited: 10 December 2012.]

4. Venezuela: a dangeorus lefty infatuation. [Online]

5. UNESCO: Venezuela has the world's fifth highest university enrollment. [Online] 21 September 2009. [Cited: 10 December 2012.] .

6. Venezuela Education Profile. [Online] [Cited: 10 December 2012.]

7. Venezuela: The World's Largest Classroom. UN. [Online]

8. Venezuela - 2012 - trade union rights in law. ITUC. [Online]

9. Venezuela - 2011 - Trade union rights in law. ITUC. [Online]

10. Japanese Shut Down Mitsubishi Auto Plant in Venezuela. Latin American Herald Tribune. [Online]

11. Venezuela union leader Ruben Gonzalez jailed for strike. BBC News. [Online]

12. Support the independent left in Venezuela. Workers' Liberty. [Online]