By Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) - The corridors are empty and silent at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), the country's oldest and largest institution of higher education, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the evacuation of its 32,000 students.
The 298-year-old university is suffering not only the impact of the coronavirus quarantine, but also a six-year economic crisis that has left it struggling with a meager budget and the emigration of 30% of its graduates.
The deterioration of its infrastructure stood out in June with the partial collapse of the roof of an outdoor walkway that is a part of the iconic architecture of the complex, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
The institution's troubles signal that Venezuela risks losing a generation of college graduates, potentially leaving it without the human resources to rebuild a nation where most of the professionals are now in the diaspora.
Many students simply get their degrees and leave the country, said rector Cecilia Garcia.
"It's bleeding out," she said.
As the number of students declines, some professors make just $1.50 a month, Garcia said.
"The deterioration is general," said David Sosa, president of the UCV student federation, walking through corridors dotted with leaky roofs and broken cobblestones.
"It is disappointing that we have to sit and wait for other countries to develop solutions, vaccines (for coronavirus), when we in Venezuela have historically had first-class universities," Sosa said.
Venezuelan doctor and scientist Jacinto Convit, who created a vaccine for leprosy, graduated from the UCV, said Victor Marquez, head of the university's association of professors.
"A government that destroys a fundamental element of social development, such as education ... is creating a terrible future for the nation," said Marquez.
Sosa and Marquez said that because the UCV did not support the government, authorities applied financial "asphyxia" by limiting its budget. The government says the school is leading a leftist revolution.
The information ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The university was founded in 1721 and operated for over a hundred years out of a convent in downtown Caracas.
In the 1940s, the government donated land to build "University City," a 152-hectare (375-acre) compound with 90 hectares of green space, said Aglais Palau, director of the university's Preservation and Development Council.
Gustavo Izaguirre, dean of the School of Architecture, said the university would need about $15 million annually over more than a decade for maintenance such as waterproofing buildings.
The university's 2008 operating budget was about $500 million. "Today the entire budget of the Central University of Venezuela does not reach $2 million," said Izaguirre. "How can we do the maintenance if we don't have the resources?"
He added that more than half of his architecture students "state that upon graduating, what they want is to leave the country. That is sad."
In Venezuela "we need professional manpower" because, for example, "all the buildings in the country are at risk."
(Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)