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A key challenge facing young Venezuelan revolutionaries is how to cohere all of these organisations and individuals into a mass youth and student movement that can not only challenge the corrupt elites of the autonomous universities (which have become bastions for the far right in Venezuela), but also push forward the revolutionary process as a whole.

The first attempt at organising youth in support of the Bolivarian revolution was Juventud y Cambio (Youth and Change). Bringing together a large number of youth groups, it helped initiate a national discussion on the National Law on Youth, from which emerged the National Youth Institute (INJ) that today functions as a youth ministry run by young people. Juventud y Cambio was dissolved after the INJ was created.

In 2002, the Bolivarian Front of Students was initiated by various student organisations in an attempt to unite campus and high school groups. Although not achieving the aim of organising high school students, it helped unite the Bolivarian left on universities and led to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s call for the creation of the Federation of Bolivarian Students (FBE). However, it only represented a tiny minority of youth, primarily from the university campuses. Today, many of the initial groups involved in the FBE have left due to bureaucratic practices, and nearly all of Venezuela’s university student unions are controlled by the right.

After the failure of these previous attempts to involve large numbers of youth, Chavez initiated the Frente Francisco de Miranda (FFM) in 2003, now the largest youth-based organisation in Venezuela. The FFM originated from a discussion between Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro on youth collaboration between Venezuela and Cuba, with the aim of developing facilitators for Mission Robinson (Venezuela’s mass literacy program).

A 50-day-long course on social work was established in Cuba, with many social, cultural, political and religious youth groups (predominantly from the universities) given a quota for participation. After the second group came back, the FFM themselves decided who would be next to be sent to Cuba. To date, some 36,000 Venezuelan youth have participated in 11 courses in Cuba.

Taking its name from the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda, who fought in the French, American and Haitian Revolutions and for the liberation of South America from Spanish colonialism, the FFM views itself as the “foot soldiers of the revolution”. It operates through a military command-style structure. The national leadership is selected by a resume process through the office of the president and the organisation’s political direction comes from Chavez.

As Maria Rosa, head of student affairs for the FFM, explained to Green Left Weekly, the FFM can not be described as simply a political, social or military organisation, but at different stages of the revolution plays each of these roles. The FFM was formed “based on the necessities of the revolution”.

The FFM sees the formation and spreading of an ideology for the people as an urgent task of the revolution. Carlos Peroza of the FFM leadership in Merida explained: “In order to defend the revolution, people have to be conscious of the ideas of socialism, of what they are defending.”

Through their work in the social missions and agitation among the people, the FFM aims to popularise the ideas of socialism, of human rights, equality and access to education, but also “to take scientific socialism to the base.”

The FFM has played a key role in some of the major achievements of the Bolivarian revolution, particularly the extension of literacy to 1.5 million people through Mission Robinson and the issuing of identity cards to thousands of Venezuelans through Mission Identity, involving mobile registration centres. Mission Identity was particularly crucial in the lead-up to the referendum on whether to recall Chavez’s presidency in August 2004..

It maximised the participation of the poor — Chavez’s support base — many of whom were previously excluded from the political process. Rosa also explained that the FFM functioned like a political party in mobilising voters in favour of Chavez and the revolutionary process.

The FFM is involved mainly in the education missions, playing important roles in Mission Ribas (high school) and Mission Sucre (university studies), which aim to involve those previously excluded from these levels of education. It is also active in Mission Barrio Adentro (the provision of free health care), Mission Vuelvan Caras (which provides training for cooperatives) and the Casas de Alimentation (food houses, which provide food for the poor).

The FFM aims to ensure that the provision of welfare tackles the problem of marginalisation and “breaks the schema of paternalistic relationships” that dominates welfare in the West, “to imbue within the community the ideas that the communities themselves are the ones that have the solution to their problems,” Peroza explained. FFM members are also active in the army reserves, where they encourage reservists to be involved in the social missions and carry out ideological work around the need for the “integral defence of the nation.” Peroza stressed: “This is a peaceful revolution, but we understand that we are up against the biggest imperial power in the world.”

While the FFM represents the most successful attempt at involving large numbers of youth in the revolutionary process, in November 2004, according to Rosa, the FFM found itself in a “state of ideological and organisational emergency.” Initially, members of the FFM were paid a stipend by the government; however at this time their funding was reduced and 21,000 of the original 36,000 participants in the social activism course left the organisation, many for economic reasons, but also because of ideological heterogeneity (the FFM even has Mormons among its membership), and disagreements over lack of internal democracy and functioning.

Rosa added, “There were young people in the Frente who put forward the position that they didn’t go to Cuba to be political, but rather to do social work”, however, “through a process of discussion we decided that we were a political/social organisation that responded to the line of Commandante Chavez, that responded to the interests of the revolution.”

The FFM is aiming to address some of these problems and in the lead-up to its national consultation in November is discussing re-establishing the social activism course (required for membership of the FFM), either in Venezuela or Cuba, to allow the organisation to rebuild itself.

Recently, some in Venezuela have begun to call for a “war against the latifundia in the universities.” While the FFM views this as strategic for the youth movement, they see this as the role of the FBE. Given that the majority of Centros Estudantil (the equivalent of student representative councils), in the autonomous universities are controlled by the right, Rosa agreed that “it is necessary that university students organise themselves.” However, the student movement involves “only a sector of youth.”

“The FFM provides a space for youth who are community leaders, but are not associated with any student organisation. In the FFM they find the opportunity to organise themselves, to participate as youth in the revolutionary process.”

The FFM is also discussing how to organise students in the social missions, particularly those in Mission Sucre, which involves large numbers of young people, rather than Missions Robinson and Ribas, which are composed mostly of adults.

“We are working with the students in Mission Sucre to generate proposals that permit the unification of student organisations, but that is still part of the debate we have to have — it is what the FFM can help with, but we believe fundamentally it is the task for the FBE.” Indicating their role as a “cadre force” for the tasks thrown up by the revolution, Rosa added, “recently we have been given responsibilities for housing and for Mercal, [the provision of food at below market prices]”, two extremely urgent tasks facing the revolution.

“This signifies a challenge for us, because it is not only political work, but institutional work that implies administrative work — an element that is new in our work, but which we recognise as strategic, because they are two sectors where the revolution has to give a big response to the people.”

The FFM does not see its struggle in Venezuela as separate from other struggles around the world. As one member commented, “Young people all over the world are the ones that will have to tackle the problems that the world is facing, that will have to take the struggle forward. The fight for social justice has to go beyond the borders of Venezuela.”