Can students stop Chavez?

Houston Chronicle:

Eschewing revolutionary rhetoric and wearing Gap and Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts to their protests, members of Venezuela's student opposition hardly fit the stereotype of campus rabble-rousers.

But in the run-up to Sunday's referendum on constitutional changes, tens of thousands of university students have taken to the streets and emerged as the oil-rich country's leading voices of dissent.

Claiming that the 69 amendments on the ballot would give too much power to President Hugo Chavez — who is accelerating his efforts to turn Venezuela socialist — the students have led nationwide marches urging voters to reject the referendum.

Along the way, they have given a boost to the political opposition, which is on an eight-year losing streak at the ballot box.

"The students will be a huge help in building an alternative," said Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition mayor of the wealthy Caracas municipality of Chacao. "This is a revolutionary government, but one that doesn't have the students on its side."

But just how far the movement can go is unclear, said Carlos Correa, a leading human rights activist in Caracas. The students can't replace political parties in the task of organizing communities and grooming candidates, he said, and the breaks between college semesters can halt their momentum.

What's more, students, like the rest of Venezuelans, are deeply divided over Chavez.

His government has spent huge sums of petrodollars on literacy campaigns, adult education classes and so-called "Bolivarian'' universities that have opened their doors to people who can't pay the tuition at traditional colleges. These newly minted working-class scholars vigorously support Chavez and the referendum.

"Before, we lived in darkness, but under Chavez we now have rights," said Isaur Mota, 48, a janitor and father of five who studies law at a Bolivarian university. The opposition students, he said, live in a bubble.

On several occasions in the past month, pro- and anti-government students have clashed in the streets of Caracas and other cities, leaving several people injured. Yon Goicoechea, one of the main leaders of the opposition students, said he has received death threats on his cell phone.


Although the constitutional changes on Sunday's ballot would have relatively little impact on universities, they would open the door for Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely and would expand his powers over the economy, the military and the political system.

"I'm a journalism student," said Freddy Ramos, as he led a protest march through an upper-class Caracas neighborhood. "It's my future that they're playing with."

Chavez has described the student protesters as spoiled rich kids doing the bidding of their reactionary parents.

In fact, the opposition students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they are hardly dupes of Venezuela's much-maligned and sometimes disloyal political opposition.


Students launch in effective protest in Iran too. That is probably were this movement is headed unless the results of this election are much more surprising than anticipated. The fact is that the students are doing well to organize themselves, but they are hardly in a position to organize a vote drive that generally takes a party apparatus. Chavez is quickly getting a monopoly on that aspect of elections.


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