CARACAS, Venezuela — A poster pinned against the wall of a building at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas reads: “On the 23rd January 1958 the last tyrant in the history of Venezuela fell. 50 years later will you let another one eternalize his power? No is no.”
Across the country, students have been protesting an amendment to the constitution, set for a Feb. 15 referendum, that would abolish all political term limits. It would allow Venezuela’s controversial socialist president, Hugo Chavez, to run for office again after his second term concludes in 2012.
In the last few years it's the students who have proved to be Chavez's most compelling opponents, and in the last few weeks their rallies that have grabbed the headlines.
Chavez and his supporters argue that he needs more time to continue his reforms, begun when he swept to power in 1998 with a mandate to redistribute some of Venezuela's vast oil wealth. He has set up “missions,” which have brought health care and education to the country's poorest neighborhoods.
But the vociferous opposition argues that the president's social initiatives are unsustainable and cultivate a dependence on the state. Critics point to high levels of crime, corruption and inflation as signs that his administration has failed.
“We not only reject the indefinite reelection of Chavez, but also of all political candidates elected by the people, regardless of what political party they belong to,” said David Smolansky, a representative of the student council at the Andres Bello Catholic University.
Smolansky argued that the referendum itself is a violation of the constitution because a similar referendum — which included the clause scrapping term limits as well as several other propositions — was held in December 2007 and was narrowly defeated. He also said that he and his fellow students believed that the amendment would undermine democracy by reducing the possibility for changes in power.
Last week Chavez heightened the tensions. Riot police used tear gas, plastic bullets and a water cannon to break up protests after Chavez labelled the students “children of the bourgeoisie” and accused them of setting fire to a part of the Avila, the mountain that looms over Caracas, and of illegally disrupting civilian life by setting up road blocks.
“From this moment he who goes out to set fire to a hill, to burn some trees, to block a road — they should give them lots of (tear) gas and arrest them,” Chavez said at a rally where he was making his case for the referendum.
The student movement first came to prominence in 2007 when Chavez chose to discontinue the broadcasting license of the television station Radio Caracas TV (RCTV), which he accused of being involved in an attempted coup in 2002. Students were seen as crucial in persuading swing voters to vote no in the December referendum that would have ended term limits, explained Oscar Reyes, a former professor in political philosophy at the Andres Bello Catholic University who is currently involved in an educational program in the Caracas municipality of Chacao.
“What happened in 2007 is that the students suddenly discovered they had power,” he said. “One of the things Chavez has tried to do is to promote a citizenship with a political consciousness. He got it. But the paradox is most of them are against him.”
But Abelaicy Gonzalez, a 23-year-old student leader at the School of Social Work at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), said that the student movement is divided along class lines.
“Here the dynamic is that 85 percent of the student population belongs to the middle classes, while the other 15 percent come from poorer sectors,” she said. “It's a classist and oligarchic university. At the moment there are just 13 departments that are progressive or leftist while the other 30-something are with the opposition.”
Gonzalez insisted that while the pro-Chavez student movement was smaller, its argument regarding the referendum was stronger. Efforts to engage opposition students in debate had failed, she said, because “they won’t engage because they don't have arguments to defend that ‘no.’”
“The argument for "yes" is not only to continue President Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian revolution, but also it's the opportunity for the people to reward governors who have performed well,” she said. “We're not voting for indefinite re-election. It's for him to be able to compete in a third election. That needs to be made clear.”
Across Caracas, pickets manned by members of Chavez’s United Socialist Parties of Venezuela (PSUV) distribute information on the referendum. The sidewalks are strewn with leaflets and flyers emblazoned with the word “si” (“yes”), as Chavez’s campaign gathers steam.
Meanwhile, students are the only visible opponents of the amendment. The opposition political parties have yet to mobilize and rely on televised press conferences to convey their message.
A recent poll conducted in January by the polling firm Datanalisis gave the “yes” campaign a narrow lead of 51.5 percent to 48.1 percent. In December a poll showed the “no” vote leading by 56 percent to 25.5 percent.
“If you're asking me if we're the same size as the opposition movement inside the university, we're not the same,” said Gonzalez. “That's inside. Outside, we're the majority.”
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