SIMON ROMERO / Jens Erik Gould
The New York Times
November 10, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 9 — Finding Yon Goicoechea, a leader of the nascent student movement protesting the expanding power of President Hugo Chávez, is not easy. He changes cellphones every few days. After receiving dozens of death threats, he moves among the apartments of friends here each day in search of a safe place to sleep.
In an interview this week in a back room at one such residence, a villa in a leafy district in this city, Mr. Goicoechea described the movement that has supplanted traditional political parties in recent weeks as the most cohesive and respected challenger to Mr. Chávez’s government.
“We believe in exhausting the democratic options available to us through peaceful action,” said Mr. Goicoechea, 23, who studies law at Andrés Bello Catholic University here, referring to the students’ opposition to a constitutional overhaul. In the polarized world of Venezuelan political debate, such parsed and polished statements are rare.
But what about the claims, from Mr. Chávez and his loyalists, that the students ultimately want to oust him from office? “We want social transformation, not a coup,” Mr. Goicoechea said. “The real coup d’état is coming from Chávez, who wants to perpetuate himself in power.”
Indeed, the students first burst onto the scene over the summer with protests against Mr. Chávez’s move to push RCTV, a critical television network, off public airwaves. But the president’s proposed charter, which would abolish his term limits, has led to much larger protests here and in other large cities this month.
About 80,000 students flooded main avenues here on Wednesday in a march to the Supreme Court to ask it to suspend the referendum on 69 constitutional amendments scheduled for Dec. 2. Students returning from that march were attacked by gunmen at the campus of the Central University of Venezuela; nine were injured. The violence continued Friday in Mérida in western Venezuela, where four police officers and a bystander were shot and wounded while trying to break up clashes between opposing student groups, Reuters reported.
While such incidents continue ahead of the referendum, Mr. Chávez continues to disparage the student movement, calling the student protests a “fascist attack.” The president has also described the students as “daddy’s boys” — children of privilege resisting social change.
Many are indeed middle-class, but the unusual inclusiveness of public universities here makes it difficult to play class politics.
“I live in Catia,” said Ricardo Sánchez, 24, a student leader at Central University, referring to a conglomeration of slums on Caracas’s western fringe. “I leave home at 5 in the morning, and I have to go home very early so the thugs won’t attack me.
“This reform doesn’t solve those problems,” Mr. Sánchez continued, referring to the proposed constitutional overhaul.
In other statements, the president has gone further, accusing opponents of conspiring to carry out a “soft coup” supported by the United States and being inspired by groups like the Albert Einstein Institution, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., that advocates nonviolent struggle.
American involvement in political affairs here remains a delicate subject, following the Bush administration’s tacit support for the coup that briefly removed Mr. Chávez from office in 2002. Mr. Chávez has also criticized the United States for channeling funds to nongovernmental groups that are critical of him.
Hewing to a new policy trying to avoid verbal clashes with Mr. Chávez, American officials here carefully denied supporting the students.
“The United States government has no role in the student demonstrations,” said Benjamin Ziff, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Caracas.
But some of Mr. Chávez’s assertions, that the students draw inspiration from nonviolent movements elsewhere, are not off the mark. In the interview, Mr. Goicoechea said he had been fascinated with the Serbian opposition’s toppling in 2000 of Slobodan Milosevic and Gandhi’s struggle against British colonialism.
The movement led by Mr. Goicoechea and others in their 20s has evolved since June, when protesters painted their palms white and inserted flowers in the rifles of members of the security forces. Since then, they have efficiently coordinated protests around the country with a tone of increasing defiance.
“The student leaders now have more credibility among people in the street than any leader of the opposition parties,” said Alberto Garrido, a political analyst.
They are substantial: Mr. Chávez commands fervent support among the poor, and his followers control every institution of the federal government.
Mr. Chávez insists that the proposed charter contains measures needed to move his revolution forward, like a six-hour workday and reconfiguring the military. The president’s term of office would also be extended to seven years from six.
Students opposing these proposals, of course, are not the only movement on campus. Pro-Chávez student leaders have also been mobilized in recent weeks, gaining ample airtime for their views on state television.
Tensions between student groups are increasing. Robert Serra, a student leader who supports Mr. Chávez, said this week that sectors of the population were awaiting an alert to “occupy” the Caracas campuses of Central University and Andrés Bello Catholic University, bastions of opposition to Mr. Chávez.
Still, the growing intensity of anti-Chávez student protests here presents challenges for both sides: Can a revolution advance if large numbers of students are opposed to it? And will others join the students ?
“People don’t believe in political parties anymore; they don’t believe in anyone,” said Stalin González, a leader of the student protests here.
“The students are fresh new figures with a different message,” he said. “This doesn’t mean we’re the salvation.”