Students and professors struggle to keep ‘Harvard of Venezuela’ open during crisis

In college professor Carlos Molina’s class, a baby is crying, but Molina doesn’t miss a beat in his lecture.

Molina knows that many of the students in his nursing class at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas have overcome big hardships just to get there in the midst of the country’s political and economic meltdown. So when the 3-month-old baby strapped to the chest of student Moraxis Granado begins to wail, Molina barely registers the sound as he goes on talking about the ethical aspects of nursing.

“We see students who struggle to provide for their babies in the country with no or little food. Yet they come to the class, often walking long distances, with calm dedication, to earn their degrees. They dream about a more dignified life that they could reach for themselves and their children,” said Molina, who calls such efforts heroic.

The university played a significant role during last year’s revolt against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, with many students taking part in street protests that were later crushed. But through it all, the students have continued to show up for class.

In Granado’s case, Molina is right about the long walk — and the hard times. The 30-year-old student usually wakes up about 3:30 a.m. to get a spot in a line to buy groceries because food shortages in Venezuela have become so pervasive. Then she sets off for more than an hourlong walk to the university. She can’t afford a bus ticket.

She always brings tiny Ismael with her, since she has no one to care for the baby and she can’t pay a nanny. When the baby cries too loudly, she stands up in class and walks around to soothe him. Sometimes, a classmate will offer to hold him so she won’t miss too much of the lecture.

Student Moraxis Granado holds her baby while attending professor Carlos Molina’s class at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

“I believe that with a degree I can move forward and also show others that despite my tough situation, you can actually do it,” she said after class recently, as she packed up her things for the long walk home.

But not everyone can do what Granado does. The number of students in Molina’s class dropped drastically just in the month of October, from 44 to 25. And the university itself, once considered the Harvard of Venezuela, is in bad shape. At the main campus in downtown Caracas — formerly a bustling campus full of eager students — the decay is on full display.

The grass, once meticulously cut short, is now knee high. Many classrooms stand abandoned with broken windows, torn off doors and peeling paint. Dozens of stray dogs roam. In many buildings, there is no running water.

The list of notable alumni is long and illustrious, including presidents like Romulo Betancourt and businessmen like Lorenzo Mendoza, founder of Polar, the largest corporation in the country. Two-time presidential opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, also studied here.

They attended school during good times for the university. But it’s a very different experience for the generation of students here now. For instance, the building that hosts the schools of nursing, anthropology and social communication is without lights and air conditioning. Students have to endure their lectures in oppressive heat and, at times, in darkness.

The lights have gone out at the school of anthropology at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. The university’s students and professors are trying to keep the university open amid the economic and political crisis in Venezuela. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

Molina, 54, understands what the students are going through because he also struggles to survive. Every weekend, he drives to a nearby mountainous area called Galipan to farm his small plot of land, where he grows yuca, avocados, mangoes and tomatoes to help his family.

Molina has been teaching for 22 years, but he only makes between $17 and $20 a month. So he farms on the side. “This agricultural activity enables me to sustain my family, and a surplus gives me a chance to sell my harvest on the street,” he said, while looking over his crops recently.

Molina had just collected piles of corn, planning to grind the kernels into a puree. Later, he would use the mash to make sweet corn pancakes known as cachapas, another item he sells.

Molina has plenty of company among the other professors with second jobs, said Bernardo Mendez, 67, vice rector in the administration department of the university. “There are professors who had to find additional jobs to complement their income. They became drivers, farmers or real estate agents.”

The administration department is in charge of the university budget, which has been drastically declining as the country has spiraled downward. In 2008, the university received a little over 60 percent of the money it had requested. This year, it is getting 17 percent of the requested money, an amount that covers only about four months of the professors’ salaries. Mendez said the school ran out of money for the year in May.

“The school should be a place where there is the knowledge of generations, a search for the truth and liberty of thinking. If it’s just about giving and receiving money, we lose the very essence of the university,” said Mendez, alluding to the many educational projects and studies that have come to a halt under the drastic cuts.

The university manages to stay open with earnings generated by the baseball and soccer stadiums. Donations made by former professors and students who have fled the country and now live abroad are another significant source of income.

Still, that’s far from enough money. In addition to deep cuts in professors’ pay, other budget items have been also slashed. There’s no money for cleaning personnel, so professors and students often clean their own offices and classrooms.

“At one point, I huddled with my colleagues to collect our own money to hire somebody who could clean,” said Rogelio Altez, an anthropology professor who has published 12 books.

Thieves have taken advantage of the university’s decline, stealing cables, light bulbs, generators and computers. Someone even yanked out the toilet bowls in the anthropology department, forcing its 300 students to share one bathroom.

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Dogs roam the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, which is struggling to stay open. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

Professors at the school are often seen as the conscience of the country, the keepers of the national memory and the cultural heritage and a source of fierce independence. That’s why so much of the unrest last year involved students from the university.

When the protests were crushed, the students succumbed to depression, Altez said. Even now, he said, they often come to class exhausted and depressed. “They can’t attend the classes on a regular basis and their lack of energy demonstrates itself in an attitude like ‘I don’t feel like doing anything.’ Even members of the political movement confess that they don’t believe in anything anymore,” Altez said, adding that he often feels the same.

The university’s motto — “The house that defeats the shadow” — seems distant today. There’s little talk of defeating ignorance, oppression and dictatorship.

But the classes go on, noted Molina, the nursing professor.

“We stay open as an act of rebellion,” he said, “and we hope that we can keep resisting this shadow of tyranny of the Venezuelan state in the spirit of the motto.”

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