By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 2, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 1 -- Pro-government gunmen have shot at them, and the president has called them "fascists" and "spoiled brats" who will stop at nothing to oust him.
But an eclectic group of university students, some from Venezuela's sprawling public campus and others from elite private schools, have formed perhaps the most credible and potent opponent to President Hugo Chávez's proposed constitutional changes.
The proposal, which would expand Chávez's powers, goes to a vote Sunday, but polls show that what would have been an easy victory for Ch¿vez a few weeks ago is now a tossup.
With Venezuela's opposition parties in tatters, and key opposition leaders weakened by one Chávez victory after another, the students have emerged as the conscience of a country where many opponents of the president had, until recently, been resigned to his increasing influence, said Fernando Coronil, a Venezuelan academic at the University of Michigan who has written extensively about Venezuelan history.
"The student movement is very diverse and heterogeneous," Coronil said. "They're a new actor in Venezuelan politics, with a new discourse that, I think, is very interesting historically."
In recent days, the president and many of his closest allies in the government have spent hours on state television discrediting the students and accusing them of having ties to oligarchs who want to rule Venezuela for the rich. The president and his allies also insist that pro-Chávez students well outnumber those who oppose him, and to be sure, there have been sizable mobilizations of students who support the changes.
"Today, it's been proven that it's false what the media says, that the students are anti-government," Chávez said in a recent speech to university students who marched in his support. "The truth has been shown: Venezuelan students are with the revolution and will vote yes."
Many of the anti-government students and their leaders do hail from such elite universities as Andres Bello, the prominent Catholic university in Caracas. And some student groups have received funding for workshops from the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to documents made available to The Washington Post on Saturday.
The U.S. documents, obtained through a freedom of information request filed by a researcher for the National Security Archive at George Washington University, show that $216,000 was provided from 2003 through this year to unnamed student groups at several universities for "conflict resolution," "democracy promotion" and other programs.
Jeremy Bigwood, the researcher, has obtained other documents in recent years showing U.S. aid for anti-Chávez groups. He said these documents show, at the very least, that the Bush administration wanted to "keep a finger on the pulse of the student movement."
"I don't think it's a major influence upon the student movement. It's minor," Bigwood said. "My gut feeling is that there is an authentic student movement."
A spokeswoman at the American Embassy in Caracas, Jennifer Rahimi, said that the United States supports "nonpartisan civil society activity" but that there is no funding for the opposition movement. "There is no conspiracy to affect the outcome of the constitutional referendum," she said.
Many of the students who have joined the swelling movement against the changes are from the country's largest public university, the Central University of Venezuela, which enrolls 40,000. The students are decidedly leftist, opposed in principle to the Bush administration and aligned with a political shift in which moderately leftist governments have been elected across the continent.
Among the leaders is Stalin Gonzalez, 26, a law student whose father was once a member of the radical Red Flag movement here. He grew up in the poor Catia district, and his father had such affinity for the left that he named his children after three towering figures of communism -- Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin and Friedrich Engels.
Stalin Gonzalez, though, said he does not regard Chávez as a leftist -- but rather as an autocrat whose administration is intent on accumulating power. Gonzalez is particularly worried about constitutional changes that would permit the president to run for office indefinitely, appoint governors to specially created federal territories and control the country's finances.
"I think they're obsessed and in love with the power," he said.
He stressed, though, that he and other student leaders are not focused on ousting Chávez but on defeating the referendum and, next year, advocating a national reconciliation for their sharply polarized country.
"Our intention is not to direct the opposition or be the new leaders of the opposition," he said. "The theme here is reconciliation."
Gonzalez shares the leadership with students from more elite universities, namely Yon Goicoechea and Freddy Guevara, both of the Andres Bello Catholic University.
"This is not a war of left and right," said Goicoechea, a law student. "We believe that Venezuela has to have democracy. Democracy means respect. Democracy means free expression. Democracy means saying what you want without repression."
Such accusations sting a government that has won numerous elections and remains popular with the poor because of its social programs. But Chávez has shown little but contempt for the anti-government student movement, calling the leadership "terrorists."
In an interview, Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, softened the government's position. But he raised questions about ties the anti-government student movement might have to the traditional political class.
"We have to ask: What's the agenda? What's their proposal? Is it about student issues, or politics?' " he asked.
The student movement picked up momentum this spring as Chávez undertook an unpopular but ultimately successful campaign to take an anti-government television station off the public airwaves. The movement again mobilized in recent weeks as the government began to campaign for the constitutional changes.
"We were preparing for the scenario of losing," said Guevara, 21, who studies communications. "We thought the political parties and social movements wouldn't be strong enough to go against the government's political machine."
The ideals of the movement have motivated young students such as Andres Lizarazo, 18, who participated in a recent protest.
"We're strong, very strong," said Lizarazo, a business student at the Catholic university. "They can't stomp on us. The students have to take the country ahead. We're the future of the country."