Scripps Speaker Series Prompts Debate Over Socialism in Venezuela

Political unrest in Venezuela has caused a number of protests. (Photo courtesy of @andresAzp on Flickr)

Scripps College hosted a speaker series called “Venezuela: What is Happening?” Monday through Wednesday in an effort to educate people about the country in transition, causing some to accuse the school of promoting a totalitarian socialist regime.

Regional elections for the country’s 23 gubernatorial seats were held Oct. 15, and the ruling socialist party led by President Nicolás Maduro secured the majority with a 17-seat win. The election, which many of the Venezuelan opposition claim was rigged, comes after a major July vote that granted the government broad constitutional powers.

Electoral protests, famine, and triple-digit inflation have wracked the country this year, leaving more than 120 dead.

The main event of the series was held in the Hampton Room on Monday night and featured four speakers: Antonio Cordero, a member of the Bolivarian government of Venezuela and the Consul General of the western region of the United States; Pomona College history professor Miguel Tinker Salas; Jeanette Charles SC ’10, a contributor to the news website Venezuela Analysis; and Pambana Bassett SC ’13, a graduate student at the University of the West Indies.

Scripps history professor Cindy Forster, who co-sponsored the speaker series with the Chiapas Support Committee, Scripps Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Harper Fund, required her core class to attend at least one of the events or an alternate Scripps event on Thursday.

She said the series is “one-of-a-kind, in a milieu in which the media has joined Trump’s calls for a U.S.-backed invasion of Venezuela” and said the events “signaled the willingness of Scripps to engage in larger debates about history and politics.”

Eve Kaufman SC ’21, who attended the Monday night event, said she doesn’t know what to believe.

“I would like to believe that this new government could be good,” she said.

Kaufman admitted there is still a lot of turmoil under the Maduro administration, which has jailed opposition leaders and threatened to put more members of the opposition, news media, and congress in prison. Additionally, violent clashes between protesters and authorities have increased within the country.

As for the talk itself, it was “totally normal and vaguely promoting socialism,” Kaufman said, adding that most things at Scripps tend to support socialism, “unless it’s the Motley.”

In Forster’s class, Kaufman said ‘there’s no diversity of opinion, [which is] blinding to us and not helpful.”

Zaidee Hedges Laughlin SC ’21, who also attended the Monday evening talk for class, characterized it as “a peaceful, powerful event.” She said the speakers all spoke in general terms, so “it was hard for me to gauge the truthfulness of what they were saying.”

“It’s hard to wrap your mind around ideas that are so different from what you’ve been raised thinking,” Hedges Laughlin said, referring to the traditional American view that supports capitalism.

Jonathan Azterbaum PZ ’20, a member of the Chiapas Support Committee, traveled to Venezuela in August, and said the speaker series is necessary because the mainstream media spews “complete lies about what’s happening.”

“When you go there, it’s seriously ridiculous how different it is compared to what people say it’s like,” Azterbaum said. “The quality of life has improved dramatically.”

The event flier boasts of “an electoral system that experts believe to be the most transparent in the world,” likely in reference to a statement by Venezuela Electoral Campaign Chief Jorge Rodriguez.

Smartmatic, the company that provided 24,000 voting machines used in the July election, reported that voting totals were “tampered with,” but Azterbaum said “these elections were deeply, deeply democratic. If this is a dictatorship, what a beautiful dictatorship.”

In search of the real truth in today’s Venezuela, Kaufman suggests looking at economic reports “because statistics can be fudged less than personal opinions.”

Zach Wong CM ’19 was appalled when he heard about the speaker series.

“This was a blatant attempt at spreading propaganda in Claremont without acknowledging any of the human rights violations that are well-documented by journalists from major news outlets,” Wong said. “If the purpose of the event was to explain what is currently happening in Venezuela, the last thing I think you would want is to have the oppressing party explain what is going on.”

Charlie Harris CM ’19 agreed with Wong.

He described the series flyer as “something pumped out by a ministry of propaganda” that “does not seem to be a genuine attempt at diagnosing and fixing the problems facing Venezuela today.”

“I respect the rights of these student organizations to host events on whatever they want to, but I’m worried that students, by no fault of their own, could end up just hearing and believing the propaganda of the Venezuelan government,” Harris said.

According to Azterbaum, however, “all [students] have been able to ask their questions.”

Azterbaum said much of the backlash against the series is coming from Venezuelans in the U.S., many of whom who aren’t part of the working class.

Bassett, the graduate student speaker, said “as black people, we saw it [as] really important [to host the events].”

“It’s incredibly important because [perceptions about what’s happening have] deterred people from traveling there,” Charles added. “The conversation has gone beyond Venezuela. [It’s about] what different types of societies we can explore.”

The speaker series prompted a tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was responding to an article on the series in The Daily Caller.

The other events, “Black Liberation and Reparations at the Heart of Venezuela’s Revolution,” “PEOPLE’S POWER in Venezuela, the Highest Power in the Land,” and “Paramilitarism from the Right versus building the Communal State from Below,” were held over the next two days.

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