Youth Movement Revives Venezuela's Opposition
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Now, an update on politics in Venezuela. Last month, opponents of President Hugo Chavez narrowly defeated a referendum that would have given Chavez limitless opportunity to seek reelection. Now, he's urged his supporters to launch a drive to remove constitutional term limits so he can run again in 2012.
As NPR South America correspondent Julie McCarthy reports, Venezuela's once-fractured opposition is now unified and strategizing on next steps.
JULIE McCARTHY: Venezuela's university students have emerged in six short months as a powerful voice for the opposition with a movement that organizers estimate is 100,000 strong.
(Soundbite of protesters)
McCARTHY: Their first foray into Venezuelan politics came last June. Students clashed with the government over its refusal to renew the broadcast license of one of the country's most popular and anti-government television stations. By November, tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens had joined this student-led demonstration to denounce the bid by Chavez to expand his powers.
A majority of the voters sided with the students in December, voting down the referendum that would have allowed Chavez to seek reelection as long as he wished. Students are now regrouping.
Mr. FRANK CALVINO(ph) (Student Leader, Venezuela): If I became communist, they're going to kill me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CALVINO: (Speaking in foreign language)
McCARTHY: Student organizer Frank Calvino jokes with his fellow students on the campus at the University of Venezuela as they debate next moves.
Mr. JONATHAN MAYNARD(ph): (Speaking in foreign language)
McCARTHY: It's important to have a new ideology. One is that more inclusive and more ethical, says Jonathan Maynard. The 20-year-old reared in a home of ardent Chavez supporters is now a member of the student opposition.
Senior opposition leader and former presidential candidate Teodoro Petkoff says university students have played a vital role at crucial times throughout Venezuela's history. And in taking on the policies of Hugo Chavez, he says this generation students are no different.
Mr. TEODORO PETKOFF (Director, Tal Cual Newspaper, Venezuela): These are the same students as American students against the Vietnam War or the same students of Kent University, of Berkeley or students in France in May '68. They may be the same thing that students all over the world do when they bump against unjustice(ph).
McCARTHY: The biggest injustice, according to former student leader and Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, is the failure of the Chavez government to safeguard the rights of all citizens regardless of their political views. Lopez points to the myriad Chavez-inspired social programs that the government says have reduced poverty, improved health and lowered illiteracy.
Mayor LEOPOLDO LOPEZ (Chacao, Venezuela): Unfortunately, many of the social programs that are being sold outside Venezuela as miraculous programs are programs that are only for those that support his political ideology. He no longer represents hope. He represents power.
(Soundbite of music)
McCARTHY: Mayor Lopez attends a rehearsal of the student orchestra in his municipality of Chacao, which Transparency International declared a model of good governance. But his outspokenness and popularity - he was reelected with 85 percent of the vote - has attracted unwanted attention. The Harvard-trained 36-year-old with boyish looks says he has been the target of more than two dozens state criminal investigations and three assassination attempts.
Despite that, he remains on the frontlines to form what he calls a new majority.
Mayor LOPEZ: The challenge that we have ahead is to present Venezuelans not with an opposition agenda, but with an alternative. We want a Venezuela where independent of the way you think, your rights as your rights with no exclusion, with no privileges. And that's a Venezuela different from the past and is different from what Chavez has done for a decade.
McCARTHY: Among the young mayor's strongest allies are the students who have been accorded rock star status since helping to defeat Chavez in December.
(Soundbite of crowd)
McCARTHY: Well-wishers at this student-organized concert swarmed Freddy Guevara, a national student leader from the Catholic university in Caracas whose Tom Cruise looks may have as much to do with his popular appeal as his message of national reconciliation.
Freddy autographs T-shirts and bends down to listen to old ladies who pat his cheeks with grandmotherly affection. Seventy-five-year-old Flor Ortega(ph) says.
Ms. FLOR ORTEGA: (Speaking in foreign language)
McCARTHY: The student movement has been like the angels of our democracy. We were very sad, she says, and they inspired us.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
McCARTHY: Eighty-three-year-old Beatrice Alcantada(ph) joins people a quarter her age on this night of folk music, rock and rap. And she has choice words for President Chavez whom she blames for fanning the flames of divisiveness.
Ms. BEATRICE ALCANTADA: (Speaking in foreign language)
McCARTHY: Power has made him sick, she says. I ask him, as many Venezuelans do, to rectify the situation and look for unity and for peace. He has spoken enough nonsense, she says. This is a democracy, she says in a frail voice, and I am not afraid.
Twenty-one-year-old Freddy Guevara says the students have helped restore a sense of hope among those who believe the opposition was incapable of mounting any genuine challenge to their charismatic president. He says they're doing it by taking the focus off Hugo Chavez and putting it on democracy.
Mr. FREDDY GUEVARA (Student Leader, Andres Bello Catholic University, Caracas, Venezuela): Not much time will pass for the government to do something democratic, and not much time will pass for the students to have to go to the street and fight for their rights.
McCARTHY: You know, each time you go to the streets and you become stronger, the government will push back harder.
Mr. GUEVARA: Yeah. I think that what we have in control is a non-violence. When you go to the street with a non-violence, you can keep the government the excuse to make a big impression.
McCARTHY: Congressman Luis Tascon, a passionate Chavez supporter, is not that impressed by the opposition or its arguments. He stresses that Chavez attained power through democratic election, and reelection, and still enjoys tremendous support especially among the poor.
Nonetheless, Congressman Tascon says Chavizmo itself needs a review in light of the December loss to the polls.
Congressman LUIS TASCON (Venezuela): (Speaking in foreign language)
McCARTHY: The elites, those in high office, are interested in power. They have lost the sense of what the authentic problems are - crime being the biggest one, the congressman says.
The opposition's defeat of Chavez's referendum last month appears to have slowed down his socialist experiment. President Chavez has opened the year emphasizing instead everyday issues such as crime, milk shortages and inflation.
Veteran opposition leader Teodoro Petkoff admits that the anti-Chavez forces ceded power to Chavez when they boycotted earlier elections. But Petkoff says expecting opposition this year to resort to the one tactic left to it - mass protest.
Mr. PETKOFF: Some - if the street, is the real scenario for us.
McCARTHY: The next electoral test for the opposition comes later this year when the country elects mayors and governors.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.