Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion

Venezuela’s president never graduated from college, but now you can call him Dr. Nicolás Maduro.

That's thanks to the Bolivarian University of Venezuela [UBV], a state-run institution founded by former President Hugo Chávez, which announced it will bestow the struggling president with an honorary degree.


The university said its board of directors voted unanimously to award the president with its highest academic degree in recognition of Maduro’s leadership in the struggle against “imperialism.”

“We have a debt with you, Mr President, because last year we approved an order…that recognizes your work and commitment to the legacy of Hugo Chávez,” university rector Maryann Hanson said during a graduation ceremony on Tuesday. “We grant you this acknowledgement with the humility and love that our supreme commander [Hugo Chavez] showed us.”

Maduro’s honorary PhD comes as Venezuela slips into a deep recession; some analysts project the country’s economy will shrink by 7 percent this year.

Shortages have become the norm in Venezuela, with people regularly queuing outside supermarkets for soap, toilet paper, milk, chicken and other basic goods.

David Smilde, a Venezuela analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) says the gesture was mostly a political move, as the Venezuelan government fights U.S. sanctions.


“UBV is not only a public, government-funded university, it has no institutional autonomy from the government,” Smilde told Fusion in an email. “The UBV is expected to be an institution of higher education at the service of the revolution, not at the service of knowledge for knowledge's sake. So this [award] makes perfect sense. They tend not to see themselves in terms of academic excellence but in terms of how committed and useful they are to the revolution.”

Some Venezuelans share that assessment, and took to Twitter to express their outrage over the decision.


“With the doctorate for Maduro, UBV’s academic level is clear, what a sham,” said Roberto Lamarca.


“They should give him a degree for all the pain he’s caused,” wrote Gabriela Montero, a well known Venezuelan pianist.


Maduro is not the first world leader to receive an honorary degree for what appear to be political purposes. Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza got one from Harvard Business School in 1978, Fidel Castro has a few honorary doctorates from leftist universities in Latin America, Guatemalan indigenous-rights activist Rigoberta Menchu got more than a dozen after winning the Nobel Prize, and U.S. presidents are frequently given honorary degrees.

And some world leaders have even been stripped of honorary degrees.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was awarded more than a dozen by universities in Europe and the U.S. for his fight against British colonialism, but some of those schools later rescinded the titles when his government degenerated into a brutal dictatorship.


Perhaps in a couple decades, the Bolivarian University of Venezuela will have similar regrets.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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