November 24, 2007
As night falls on the Central University of Venezuela, student leader Stalin González fixes a steady gaze on eight men walking nearby.
''We're going to lynch you!'' one of the men yells as the group disappears into the darkness. González shrugs but then moves closer to a corner lightpost, within sight of a group of friends.
Named after a Soviet leader and once a member of a Marxist-Leninist party, the 26-year-old student has nonetheless emerged as one of leftist President Hugo Chávez's most prominent critics through his leadership in a growing student movement that encompasses most of Venezuela's public and private universities.
''The student leadership is a product of the juncture that Venezuela is living right now, one that emerged because of the lack of political leadership,'' said González, who is president of the university's main student federation. ``That created a situation where the young people stepped up and they have more credibility than the political parties.''
González, a calm presence with dark eyes and a gentle smile, is free of the rancor that many critics of Chávez possess -- although he has become a person many Chávez supporters love to hate. Unflappable and shrewd, he speaks simply. There are flashier personalities in the university's student government, but González is the one who always knows what's going on.
He presides at a time when Venezuela's deep political divisions make campus life increasingly tense and sometimes violent. Thousands of students surged into the streets in late May, for instance, over Chávez's refusal to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Televisión, effectively yanking the country's oldest station -- and the only opposition channel with national reach without satellite hookups -- off the air. The protesters, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, painted their hands white in a sign of peace, although several of the marches ended in harsh confrontations with police and a rain of tear gas. The government has accused the protesters of violence, and hundreds have been detained.
Since then, the protesters have turned their criticism to the upcoming Dec. 2 referendum on Chávez's proposed constitutional changes, which would remove presidential term limits, shorten the legal workday to six hours, and allow the president to declare a state of emergency, censor media and detain citizens without charges.
Protests last week were peaceful, but violence has erupted at times. On Nov. 7 during a march calling for a postponement of the voting, gunmen on motorcycles roared into the Central University -- known by its Spanish abbreviation as the UCV -- and opened fire on returning students, trapping dozens of people inside the School of Social Work, a pro-Chávez bastion.
Chávez has dismissed the protesting students as ''spoiled brats'' and accused them of conspiring with ''imperialists'' and opposition parties to overthrow him in a violent coup. He has also attacked González, calling him and three other student leaders -- UCV classmate Ricardo Sánchez and Yon Goicoechea and Freddy Guevara, both of the Andrés Bello Catholic University -- the ``four terrorists.''
AN ACTIVE LEADER
González now lives in a vortex of protests, strategy sessions and press conferences, juggling calls on his three cellphones between the courses he must complete to graduate next year.
He gets threats, but nothing more than ''the usual,'' he says. He has had at least one close call, as nine rusty bullet holes on the barred metal door of his student federation office attest. A year before, González was chased across the concrete plaza outside; when he took refuge in the university rector's building, the assailants shot the door to his office.
González tells the story in an even voice, as if he's describing a tennis match.
He rarely walks alone in certain areas at night. ``He's the preferred prey of the Chavistas,'' said his father, Nicolás González, 54, a full-time union organizer.
RAISED IN CARACAS
Nicolás González and Dorelys Montaño, a UCV press copy editor, raised their young family in the poor Caracas sector of Catia, in a former government housing project.
Both passionate leftists, they named their children Stalin, Ilich and Engels -- for Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Friedrich Engels, a communist triumvirate. Nicolás regularly took the children to meetings of the Red Flag, a Marxist-Leninist party that had both public workers' and students' committees, as well as a revolutionary guerrilla arm that battled Venezuela's then-conservative government into the 1980s. Stalin González and his two sisters played in the back while Nicolás, who says he wasn't part of the armed resistance, planned union activities.
González joined the party's youth wing, the Union of Revolutionary Youth, when he was 13, organizing study circles and debates.
'He was always asking `why,' and he wasn't happy with just any answer,'' Montaño said in the family's apartment in the modest middle-class neighborhood of Candelaria, where they now live. ``It had to be an explanation that convinced him or he would just keep asking.''
The couple's idealism has not waned -- they still have a poster-size picture of Argentine icon and former Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara in their living room -- but it has evolved. ''You're in the Stone Age if you believe in the old left ideas now,'' said Nicolás González, a stout, bespectacled man.
Stalin González has also become more pragmatic, leaving Red Flag and joining Un Nuevo Tiempo, or UNT, the centrist party that fielded the main opposition presidential candidate, Manuel Rosales, in last year's presidential election. UNT and other opposition parties struggled to make inroads into the country's poorest sectors, where Chávez is wildly popular because of his social programs.
González believes that Chávez's socialist rhetoric is a lie because the country has not set about to create a working class, instead surviving off its oil wealth.
''This government talks a lot, but it does very little,'' González said. ``Chávez isn't a Marxist-Leninist, he's a crazy military officer.''
With his second and final term as president of the student federation coming to an end, González will focus on graduating next year, as well as continue to lead the nationwide student parliament created by the anti-Chávez student movement until then. He plans to enter politics, likely with UNT, although he's not sure in what role.
At the university's recent student elections, he watched with a weary, reserved joy as his coalition's candidates won with 60 percent of the votes.
As his allies cheered at each new tally, González wandered over to speak with Héctor Rodríguez, the university's most prominent pro-Chávez student leader and a law-school classmate.
González shook hands and turned away. He would be celebrating -- at least on this election night. ''We're friends,'' González said of Rodríguez. ``I hope we can keep that up in the future.''