Students Become Potent Adversary To Chávez Vision

Venezuela Votes Today on Constitution

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 2, 2007; Page A20

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.

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