June 5, 2007
It could be the birth of a new opposition movement in Venezuela: Thousands of university students—their hands painted white as a symbol of nonviolence—returned to the streets Monday, keeping up a week of protests against President Hugo Chavez's decision to force a popular TV station off the air.
Unlike earlier protests by opposition parties, the student marches have been dominated by a new generation of Venezuelans taking to the streets for the first time by the thousands in a coordinated challenge to Chavez.
"The great achievement is to have awakened the students," said protest organizer Yon Goicoechea while other students prepared for a march by painting their faces yellow, blue and red—the colors of the Venezuelan flag.
The 22-year-old law student at Caracas' Andres Bello Catholic University said the student movement has sought to keep its distance from the old-guard parties that Chavez has repeatedly defeated at the ballot box.
Although students have been approached by opposition politicians, he said, "we've asked them to stay on the sidelines."
Student leaders hold daily meetings to plan marches, and spread the word through text messages. Thousands kept it up on Monday, chanting "freedom!" and "we aren't afraid!" as they paraded toward the Supreme Court.
It remains unclear whether their protests will maintain momentum, or whether they will coalesce into a major political force.
Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has called them "students of the Venezuelan upper class" being used by opposition parties and media moguls.
Chavez said Saturday that the students are "victims of manipulation" who are representing the interests of U.S. "imperialism."
"When the press comes, they go running and get on their knees in front of police who aren't doing anything to them. They get on their knees and raise their hands. It's a show," Chavez said.
While some rock-throwing protesters have clashed with riot police, student leaders have called for nonviolence. Many students have painted their palms white and raised them as a sign of peace when met by crowds of pro-Chavez demonstrators.
Protests surfaced at most of Caracas' public and private universities since the opposition-aligned channel RCTV was forced off the air May 27 by Chavez's decision not renew its license. The demonstrations have spread to other universities nationwide.
"We're protesting not only for one channel, but for what it represents—for free speech," said Charlotte Alagna, a 25-year-old student at Central University of Venezuela.
She said she is concerned about eroding freedoms—and that Chavez could threaten the academic autonomy of public universities like hers.
While most student protesters are from middle-class and wealthier families, others such as Alagna come from working-class areas. They've grown up during the presidency of Chavez, who took office in 1999 and remains popular, especially among the poor.
Many students were still in high school when Chavez was briefly ousted in a failed 2002 coup. Ever since, Chavez has accused opposition politicians of backing attempts to overthrow his government.
Chavez's former vice president Jose Vicente Rangel, however, said he does not believe the students are "engaged in coup-plotting."
"That student opposition must be differentiated from the old politics of the opposition ... the terrorist and coup-mongering opposition," Rangel said.
Chavez also has supporters on campus.
Jorge Cordero, an 18-year-old at Central University, said the protesters seem to be defending media companies.
"They aren't talking about the people's freedom of expression," he said, echoing Chavez's view that Venezuela is democratizing the airwaves by turning over RCTV's signal to a new state-supported public channel.