Protest appears to have Chávez on defensive
GERARDO REYES AND CASTO OCANDOMiami HeraldJune 3, 2007 While protesters of the closing of a TV station have not called for President Chávez to step down, they say they are seeking pluralism and freedom of expression.Venezuelan society was sleeping and the students sounded the wake-up call.
That's how Fred Guevara, a social communications student and protest leader, described a spontaneous student movement that has President Hugo Chávez's government on the defensive.Last week, on the streets of the nation's largest cities, hundreds of university students in their mid-20s marched, shouted, sang, hurled stones and burned tires to demand the reinstatement of Radio Caracas Televisión, which folded on May 27 after the government failed to renew its broadcasting license.
It's the rebellion of the chamos, as young people are known in Venezuela.
The youths do not demand that Chávez step down, as the opposition has done in some of its massive marches since the former military officer was elected president in 1998. Instead, they have picked pluralism and freedom of expression as their banners, and they have refused to let the opposition host their vociferous protests.
''We receive support [from the opposition] but we don't want any alliance with them,'' Guevara, 21, a senior at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, told El Nuevo Herald.
The situation generated by the students ''has totally disconcerted the government,'' said Américo Martín, an opposition leader.
''The ideas of pluralism and freedom being adopted by the students are themes that touch every sector of society, so it has been very difficult for the government to silence them,'' he said.
John Goicochea, a protest leader and at student at Andrés Bello Catholic University, said the movement wants the return of RCTV but also a commitment from TVes -- the official station that replaced RCTV -- that it will broadcast all news.
The students want from private and official media ''a responsible attitude that will guarantee plurality of thought,'' Goicochea said.
The chamos modest revolution is digital. The students coordinate the protests through text messages and publicize their gatherings on videos they post on YouTube and on their Web page.
''Everything here is electronic. We keep in touch through text messages and the Internet,'' Guevara said.
Until Thursday, the students had managed to get the authorities' permission for their marches. But Friday's mobilization -- an effort to march to the National Assembly in Caracas -- was busted after Freddy Bernal, the mayor of El Libertador municipality and a loyal Chávez supporter, refused to authorize it.
On Saturday, thousands of chavistas took to the streets of Caracas in an effort to counter the students.
Information Minister Willian Lara said the march would ''demonstrate before the world that the non-renewal of [RCTV's license] . . . is a democratic conquest,'' claiming the private media had been ``held ransom by a small economic group.''
Many marchers said they backed RCTV's removal
because they opposed the sexual and violent content of its entertainment shows, and found the news programs biased, the Associated Press reported.
Although many of Venezuela's media outlets, including newspapers and radio stations, are privately owned and critical of Chávez, the RCTV case concerns some because it was the only opposition-aligned TV station with nationwide reach. Chávez has said another major TV channel critical of the government, Globovisión, could also face sanctions.
The U.S., Spain and the Brazilian Congress have recently called on Chávez to reopen RCTV. The Venezuelan president reacted by saying that a right-wing conspiracy led by Washington was out to demonize his government.Venezuela also accused Washin
gton of being behind the students' movement.
Desirée Santos Amaral, president of the National Assembly, told the local media that the U.S. State Department ''is behind the boys'' and referred to the movement as ``a conspiracy to engage in destabilizing activities to overthrow the constitutional government.''
The TV talk-show ''La Hojilla'' -- The Razor Blade -- on the official channel Venezolana de Televisión ridicules the students and pictures them as spoiled brats playing heroes.
Luis Ignacio Hernández, a student leader in his third year of Communications at Monteávila University, rejected the characterization.
''Everyday, we students see the situation of misery in the city, the insecurity that affects us all, and now the attacks on freedom of expression,'' Hernández told El Nuevo Herald by telephone from Caracas. ``So we say, we have to do something.''