Many of the students involved belong to the youth divisions of the different political parties from the opposition. Since 2005, US government funding has gone towards training and advising youth leaders and student movements enabling them to enter the political arena.
Many question whether the recent student protests against the Chavez Administration in Venezuela are autonomous from the ongoing political opposition originating from the nation’s traditional political parties that previously held power.
Though the student leadership publicly claims its actions and strategies are separate from those opposition groups that have led coup d’etats, economic sabotages and other attempts to overthrow the Venezuelan government during the past seven years, many Venezuelans, even some of the students involved in the demonstrations, believe otherwise. “They are trying to provoke violence that results in death,” warned President Chavez, “it’s a plan to generate destabilization and instability.”
Roderick Navarro, president of the Federation of Student Centers at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), affirmed last Friday during a television program on Globovision that the “weapon will still be the factor of surprise.” Stalin Gonzalez, representative from Un Nuevo Tiempo, a far right-wing party led by fugitive Manuel Rosales, the former governor of Zulia who fled to Peru last year after being officially charged with corruption and embezzlement of state funds, said that the opposition has “no reason” to notify public authorities about the routes of their marches and demonstrations.
“Last night (last Thursday) I spoke with Roderick about some specific things happening in the marches. It’s good they are doing those un expected actions because we don’t want to have to go through getting permission to march or protest from the mayor’s office,” explained Stalin Gonzalez.
Public Protest Is a Right, But at the Expense of Public Order?
In Venezuela, like in most democratic nations, public protest and assembly is a constitutional right, but not at the expense of public order and the protection of public property or the rights of others. Just like in the US, marchers must obtain permission from local authorities before engaging in a protest in a public space, otherwise, the demonstration will be viewed as illegal and participants can be subject to arrest.
The Chavez Administration has been extremely flexible and permissive with student protestors, allowing them to march and demonstrate without proper authorization, as well as limiting detentions and State intervention to maintain order. This has permitted city streets to become more chaotic and congested, particularly in the capital, Caracas, where student protestors often block the only highway running through town, burning tires and garbage and causing hours of delays for commuters. Many residents wish the government would take a stronger stance towards controlling these public disturbances. Yet President Chavez is wary to repeat the repressive actions of prior governments that used to employ the Armed Forces with tanks, soldiers, weapons of war and riot gear to beat down, detain and in some cases, kill, protestors. During the 1960s-1980s, thousands of student activists and members of leftist groups were disappeared, detained, tortured and assassinated in Venezuela. Chavez has pledged to never repeat those violent, repressive actions of the past.
Unfortunately, the government’s noble, democratic position has not been recognized by those protesting today what they consider a repressive, authoritarian regime. Ruben Dario Rivero, student representative from the UCV, considers it a step forward that student groups have reactivated and taken to the streets again. Rivero, who also belongs to the old conservative Christian party COPEI, one of two former ruling parties, declared that “coordination, unity and joint force” are necessary to combat the government today. “We receive information from the COPEI leadership in order to make decisions,” he confirmed, evidencing the clear relationship between the old-school Venezuelan opposition and its new, fresh and youthful face.
“The student movement is peaceful,” claim the leadership, despite the fact that protestors carry backpacks full of rocks and bottles, and usually end up throwing them at the police. At a recent concert event in Caracas, a flyer explaining how to make a molotov cocktail was passed around, along with an explanation of why it was necessary for these young opposition activists to cover their faces “with a t-shirt or bandanas” during protests so “the government and the authorities can’t identify us.”
The opposition Democratic Unity coalition blames the government for “repressing” the “non-violent” student protestors, claiming State forces are the first to act with violence against the “peaceful” demonstrators. But last week’s opposition protests at Venezolana de Television (VTV), the public television station, and Corpoelec, the nation’s electric company, proved otherwise. In both cases, the student groups agreed to conduct their protest activities peacefully, even declaring on camera that their actions are always “non-violent.” Their promises went un-kept, as police forces were hit with bottles and rocks, and garbage was burned in the streets to block traffic and create congestion.
“Even when they violate the law, we guarantee their human rights,” said Manuel Romero, director of the public order division of the Metropolitan Police in Caracas.
Since 2005, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy, both US government entities, have channeled several million dollars into leadership training and political organizing for right-wing youth organizations in Venezuela. In August 2009, the US State Department sponsored the visit of eight Venezuelan student leaders from the opposition parties to meet with counterparts in the US and strategize on future activities to promote “change” in their country.
This article was first published in the English edition of Correo del Orinoco International on 4 February 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.