November 24, 2007
Héctor Rodríguez, one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's chosen student leaders, strolls through the Venezuela International Book Fair, buying tomes he will have very little time to read.
''That's Héctor Rodríguez!'' one woman gasps. Other strangers stop him in the aisles to press gifts -- a Bolivarian Socialist day planner, a bracelet of white beads, a handmade necklace -- into his hands. They, like thousands of people across the country, have come to know Rodríguez through his many appearances on national TV.
Rodríguez is one of a small, high-profile group of pro-Chávez students who have been speaking out in favor of the leftist government since student protests exploded in May, after Chávez refused to renew the broadcast license of RCTV, a popular network with news reports that often criticized the government.
''I believe there's no other way to bring about a revolution except with the love of the people,'' said Rodríguez, 25, who spends much of his time advocating Chávez's controversial proposals for constitutional change, such as a measure to remove presidential term limits. ``That affection fills me with energy and commitment because it shows that this rhythm of life, despite the sacrifices, is worth it.''
Rodríguez is president of the law-school student center at the Central University of Venezuela -- known as UCV, its Spanish abbreviation -- and as a Chávez supporter, he is part of the minority. Anti-Chávez sentiment among students and faculty members is widespread, as it is in most of the country's traditional public and private universities.
Even so, Rodríguez's influence has spread far beyond the 3,000 law students he was elected to represent. As part of Chávez's 10-member Presidential Student Commission, Rodríguez is often the national voice of pro-government youth at weekly rallies, marches and press conferences.
At six-feet-two, Rodríguez is a strapping figure with the suave, warm eloquence of a small-town Southern U.S. politician. He sprinkles conversations with women with ``mi amor'' -- my love -- and works amiably with the UCV opposition while maintaining a honey-coated political zeal that he uses to simultaneously skewer and coax. A lifelong leftist, he now dreams of a communist world where the state is dissolved and people govern communally.
For many on the UCV campus, Rodríguez has a magnetism that transcends ideological divisions, said his friend Jasmin Jaimes, 45, a UCV education professor. ''The girls from both political sides are in love with him -- he makes them melt,'' Jaimes said. ``Besides having an unusual depth, he can dance really well, which isn't very common for a young man involved in politics.''
Rodríguez's national profile was boosted in June, when he and nine other pro-Chávez youths went to the pro-Chávez National Assembly to face off with the students leading street protests against the government's treatment of RCTV.
The nationally televised debate opened with one of the protesters, Douglas Barrios, who denounced the government's behavior during the protests and then led his allies in a walkout.
''The debate among university students and about university students will happen but in the universities, the streets, the neighborhoods and the towns of the country,'' Barrios said before leaving.
Echoing Chávez, Rodríguez ridiculed the protesters' refusal to debate, calling them ``hijitos de mamá y papá'' -- mommy and daddy's kids -- but then invited them to ``build a country with us.''
''You have to convince others, not through oppression or through domination but through reason,'' Rodríguez said last week. ``If you are fighting to dismantle an oppressive system like capitalism, you can't do it through another oppressive system. You have to do it only through a level of consciousness that is achieved only through debate.''
Rodríguez will soon complete his last term as president of the law-school student center. He now spends his time planning events and traveling at least three days a week outside Caracas for forums in support of the reform package, set for a Dec. 2 vote.
He will finish his next semester and plans to go on to a graduate program on public policy while continuing his political activities.
Rodríguez -- who was born in the central region of Barlovento, where his mother lived on a modest family farm -- proudly carries leftist political activism in his bloodline.
His maternal grandmother, a Communist Party militant in the 1940s, was persecuted and tortured by the conservative governments of the time. His father, Pedro Rodríguez, was a mathematics teacher active in the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Party of Venezuela, or PRV.
The younger Rodríguez was named for his father's cousin, Héctor Vicente Rodríguez, a PRV militant who was killed in a confrontation with government forces in 1965.
Rodríguez's parents separated before he was born, and he grew up immersed in the theater world of his actress mother, Jasmin Castro, a self-described ''hippie'' who worked odd jobs to support them. She did not belong to any political party but took part in socially conscious plays, particularly street theater.
''I didn't want to be involved in politics the way my mother was, because I didn't want to be persecuted and live what she lived,'' said Castro, who now teaches art history at a college on Venezuela's Margarita Island. ``But it seems he was born with that political line of my mother's.''
RELIGION AND POLITICS
During most of his childhood, Rodríguez wanted to be a priest, and he still prays every day. He doesn't believe that his leftist views conflict with his religious faith.
''If you look at different parts of history, you see that Christianity at many times was very revolutionary,'' he said. ``It's the elites of the Christian churches who are at odds with leftist views, because they want to oppress the will of the people in the name of God.''
When he arrived at UCV in 2000, Rodríguez wasn't yet a Chávez supporter. He was troubled by Chávez's advocacy of the ''Third Way,'' a mix of socialism and capitalism.
''Any system that accepts capitalism is one that accepts inequality in society,'' Rodríguez said. ``In the end, the president clarified his positions, and moved closer to what I thought should be.''
Rodríguez eventually became deeply committed to promoting Chávez's ``Boliviarian revolution.''
Rodríguez's father had also attended UCV, after participating in protests in 1977 that obliged authorities to create more slots for thousands of high school graduates who couldn't get into the university because of class-size limits.
''I'm very proud of what he's doing now, although at times I'm afraid for him because I know how murderous people can be in certain political sectors,'' said the father, Pedro Rodríguez, 48, who works for a leftist National Assembly deputy.
Because he was deep in his push for the changes in the constitution, the younger Rodríguez had little time to campaign for candidates in the UCV's recent elections.
As the returns rolled in and it was apparent that the pro-government slates were losing by wide margins, Rodríguez stood at the center of a crowd of loud but disappointed pro-Chávez students, greeting political friends and foes alike.
Stalin González, the president of the UCV student federation and a leader of the protests against Chávez, walked over.
Wearing identical red and blue UCV track-suit jackets, they chatted while a crowd of gawkers joked and snapped pictures on their cellphones. ''That's a photo for the history books!'' one young woman exclaimed.
When Rodríguez groaned over an especially deep loss, González patted him on the back, and they shook hands.
''I wouldn't call us friends, because that implies many other things,'' Rodríguez said as González turned away. ``But no matter what's happening, it's only right to be both a citizen and a gentleman.''