Up till now, the only people who have figured out how to beat Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have been kids. Since first winning the presidency in 1998, Chávez had never lost an election until December 2007, when he was stunned in a constitutional referendum that he had hoped would eliminate presidential term limits and greatly expand his socialist project. But his nemesis in that plebiscite wasn't Venezuela's feckless political opposition. It was a broad and unexpected university-student movement that took to the streets, mobilized the victorious "no" vote and flummoxed Chávez.
Chávez seems confounded no more. He has called yet another national referendum, for Feb. 15, to revisit the term-limits question. And this time he's doing a more effective if controversial job of thwarting the youths who once thwarted him. "If they block a street, tear-gas them good," he has urged the police. With the students neutralized, and with the regular opposition parties still unable to challenge Chávez on a national level, the leftist revolutionary looks likely to win this new bid for indefinite re-election. Chávez "is playing a more effective role against us," concedes student leader Juan Mejia, 22, an engineering major at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. "But he's doing it mainly by criminalizing us."
Just 13 months ago Mejia and his cohort were global celebrities. A world used to watching Latin American students march for Che Guevara causes did a double take: these undergraduates were pouring out of campuses to oppose the new standard bearer of the Latin left. And they weren't all children of right-wing oligarchs. Many were leftists themselves, with first names like Stalin. Their beef, they said, wasn't so much with Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, which many of them acknowledged had finally enfranchised the poor in a country that has the hemisphere's largest oil reserves but one of its most shamefully inegalitarian societies. Rather, they were part of the first Latin American generation raised on a democratic political diet, and they feared, fairly or not, that Chávez was out to become their generation's Fidel Castro.
Since those heady days, however, the students have lost much of their luster. Their trump card in 2007 was an image of political independence, but they've since allowed themselves to be viewed as allies of the opposition which, despite recent triumphs in state and local elections, is still seen by many if not most Venezuelans as residue from the ultra-corrupt élite that Chávez overthrew a decade ago. The movement's leaders, who once endeared themselves to the Venezuelan hoi polloi with their college-kid austerity and presence in poor barrios, now move about with top-of-the-line BlackBerrys. And more politically conservative estudiantes like Yon Goicochea, who was one of the most visible faces in 2007, are accused of cozying up to the U.S., Chávez's archenemy.
That's made it easier for Chávez to use a heavier hand with the students as have recent videos that appear to show some students allegedly transporting and preparing Molotov cocktails, in one instance igniting a small forest fire in a national park. (The students insist the fire was started by a police tear-gas canister, and that police had planted homemade bombs in one of their trucks.) "They want to provoke us onto the road of violence," Chávez told a crowd of supporters in western Venezuela this week, suggesting the students are "desperate" to have martyrs.
Police and national guard troops in recent weeks have dispersed a number of the marches and demonstrations with tear gas, while pro-Chávez students have showed up at campus political meetings shouting out anti-Chávez students as "fascists." Says Alberto Ramirez, 25, a Chavista student at a Caracas education college: "We're tired of standing by and tolerating lies about the revolution by children of the rich."
The irony is that the pro-Chávez student forces still look small in comparison. That paradox is most visible at sites like the University of the Andes in the western city of Merida. In generations past, the school was an incubator for many of the Marxists who now occupy Chávez's government, including Chávez's older brother Adan. But this past week it was the setting for one of many scenes of violent standoffs between anti-Chávez students and the national guard.
Student leaders say Chávez's offensive against them is a sign of his desperation, since polls show the "yes" and "no" votes in a dead heat. "It's the government that wants to make us fall into violence, not the other way around," insists Mejia. "We're the ones being threatened and harassed." He points to a phone call between two students that was recorded by the government and broadcast on state-run media, as if to show how closely the opposition was being tracked. More disturbing, however, is the violence allegedly visited on anti-Chávez students by pro-Chávez thugs like La Piedrita, a sort of urban paramilitary group that Chávez has denounced but which the students complain hasn't been restrained. Last week, for example, the car of anti-Chávez student leader Ricardo Sanchez was torched in Caracas. (No one was hurt.)
The students say such incidents are evidence of a larger Chávez failing the seemingly intractable violent crime plaguing Venezuela today. It's a large reason, they argue, that presidential term limits should remain in place. (Under the present constitution, Chávez's second and final term ends in 2013.) Chávez and his backers insist that he's the only one who can ultimately tackle such crises given how ineffective the opposition is and may yet be for a while.
If the latter is true, Chávez's counterattack may have a silver lining for his foes, if not for Venezuela's democracy. Because the opposition relies too much on the students to carry its political water, their diminution could force those parties to become more viable political opponents with real alternative platforms. Like the students, Venezuela's opposition eventually has to grow up.
With reporting by Virginia Lopez / Caracas