November 23, 2007
CARACAS -- In the Pedrera slum, two fresh-faced undergraduates -- both passionate activists in the nascent student movement critical of President Hugo Chávez -- lugged plastic jugs of water to a battered concrete house.
María Bolívar, wearing a red shirt emblazoned with ''Chávez -- Victory for Venezuela!'' shyly opened the door welcoming the delivery. Three weeks before, several houses slid into a heap of bricks and mud, cutting off the weekly water trucks.
''My baby got sick a while ago from the water, and it's expensive to buy it,'' said Bolívar, 26, as a baby boy crawled over her feet. ``It makes things so difficult.''
Andrés Bello Catholic University student Laura Solórzano, 21, scribbled her cellphone number and pressed the slip of paper into Bolívar's hand, insisting she call for help.
The slow house-to-house visits Nov. 13 was a far cry from the massive student protests that have rocked the country since May, but they are key to what these students say is their ambitious -- and elusive -- goal: national reconciliation. A meeting of the minds as the partisan divide widens and Chávez's anti-capitalism rhetoric peaks.
''The country is divided because of political and social barriers,'' said José Gregorio Guerra, 24, one of the main organizers of the university student movement's social programs. ``The struggle of one of us has to be the struggle of all of us.''
As Chávez accuses them of being the spoiled children of the ''oligarchy'' and moves ahead with a controversial constitutional reform that's polarizing the country, the students have launched social projects in poor neighborhoods, known as barrios. Among their programs: a health education initiative started in August to stem the country's biggest killer --diabetes.
They call it ``Healing Venezuela.''
`THE BAD GUYS'
''Many people here call the students fascists and want to make them out to be the bad guys, but I don't understand that,'' said Pedrera resident Marisol Arias, 49. ``In these times, we can't be distinguishing between colors or parties, because what we really need right now is help.''
The student protests began when Chávez refused to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, the country's oldest network and the only opposition channel available nationwide. They're opposing Chávez's proposed constitutional reforms, which would offer a popular six-hour work day but also remove term limits from the presidency and continue to squeeze civil liberties.
In the lead-up to the Dec. 2 vote, pro-reform signs -- often with just a red Sí, or ''Yes'' -- blanket Pedrera and other ramshackle barrios, bastions of Chávez support.
The social programs began this summer when students organized a day camp for underprivileged children at Caracas' Metropolitan University. Other university groups throughout the country are working with nonprofit organizations to help bring low-cost food markets and free doctor checkups to the barrios.
In this oil-rich nation where millions live in poverty, anger toward the traditional political parties that failed to help the poor in decades past became the catalyst for Chávez's rise.
Chavista students point out that many of the student movement's programs echo Chávez's popular initiatives, such as ''Barrio Adentro,'' or ''Inside the Neighborhood'' program, which brings Cuban doctors to work in poor areas.
''The Chávez government is already tackling those problems,'' said Carlos Sierra, 24, president of the pro-Chávez Bolivarian Student Federation. ``The students are just trying to infiltrate the barrios.''
The opposition students say the effort is genuine.
''We realized that we can't just criticize the president, we have to offer solutions,'' said Desiree Zambrano, 20, the president-elect of the pharmacy school student center at Central University of Venezuela, or UCV.
At least 300 students have volunteered to help the poor in Caracas. Other programs not controlled by the movement, such as ''UCV in the streets,'' also are enjoying a surge.
The students' partnership with Pedrera, part of the Antímano slum across from Catholic University, began in early November. That's when 250 neighborhood residents blocked the highway to protest the local government's failure to help those affected by the mudslides.
More than 60 Catholic University students who were stuck in the traffic jam got out of their cars and spontaneously joined in. It was a moment of unusual solidarity on the roadway that divides the university's posh enclave from one of Caracas' seemingly endless slums.
''In that moment of solidarity those students really felt the reality of life in the barrios,'' said student Oswaldo López, 22.
Since then, students have met often with Pedrera leaders to discuss the community's most pressing needs. First on their list: bringing engineers to help shore up the hill.
Not all student volunteers are well off.
UCV freshman José Marquez, 19, lives in a poor area in northeastern Caracas, and went to high school in the dangerous Propatria neighborhood.
''I believe the work in the neighborhoods is the rebuttal to Chávez's accusations of elitism in the student movement, because there are many poor students in the movement who are bringing classmates to work in their own neighborhoods,'' said Marquez. He enrolled at the UCV through a special program that identifies poor high school students with academic potential.
His family and neighbors are intensely Chavista, and Marquez is careful not to wear his movement's blue T-shirts at home.
But attitudes toward the student movement -- and Chávez -- are evolving among passionate Chávez supporters.
''My mother's point of view has been changing, after Chávez accuses us of being with the CIA and the way [Chavista supporters] attack us without provocation at the protests,'' Marquez said.
Disillusionment with Chávez is growing in the barrios, he said, pointing to opposition posters.
''That didn't happen before,'' Marquez said.
Most students haven't lived through the hard times Marquez has faced. Their visits to the slums are their first contact with poverty's harsh reality.
''When I went into [Pedrera] for the first time, I went to the highest house on the hill and looked back down at the university,'' said Catholic University student Raúl Bello, 21.
'The university looked like a tiny dot far away, and I thought to myself, `That's what progress looks like to them, something far away,' and that made me want to always be part of this project to help.
Even as they roam accompanied by local residents who support their efforts, the students sometimes encounter angry resistance.
The first time the students went to Pedrera, a group of government supporters surrounded the car, yelling and accusing them of trying to exploit neighborhood residents for media attention.
The second time, a group of pro-government men on motorcycles blocked their path. The police and a resident intervened, allowing the students to pass.
On the way back from their third trip to deliver water, Guerra let out a celebratory cheer: ``Yeah, no one yelled at us today!''
The students' actions matter to those who say they are tired of fighting words.
''We asked them for help, and they said their only goal was to help us with the problems of Pedrera,'' said Garcia Frenny, 30. ``They are helping us find solutions, little by little.''
Those working on social projects avoid political statements. Before going into the neighborhoods, they hide bracelets and buttons that say, ``No to the reform!''
Ultimately, it was Chávez's politics that brought many of them to the barrios.
''I believe Chávez was a necessary evil . . . because he made everyone realize that the future of the country isn't just the responsibility of the government,'' Zambrano said. ``The power of the people is you.''