Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Why Venezuelans Turned on Chavez

"The majority here will vote No," 51-year-old Maria Negrin said after voting in Petare on Sunday morning. "I don't agree with giving all the power to the president." Others said they wanted to vote against Chavez's proposal, but felt obligated to vote "Yes" because they benefited from government social programs.

Poor voters unhappy with the proposed constitutional overhaul said they were more troubled about measures to abolish presidential term limits and facilitate state expropriation of private property than they were enthused by articles that could benefit the poor, such as social security for informal workers and popular participation in government. That begs the question: did Chavez sacrifice measures that could have helped the poor because he insisted on a political power grab?


Both Chavez supporters and opponents said in interviews before the vote that they didn't believe the No vote had a chance. Despite that atmosphere, and a persistent opposition conviction that the results could be fraudulent, the nascent student movement helped galvanize many detractors to vote. When students took to the streets to protest the forced shutdown of the opposition-aligned television station Radio Caracas Television earlier this year, the country had all but forgotten that the universities were one of the very few sectors of society left that was not yet controlled by the government. On that occasion, young people staged their largest protests after the TV station had already gone off the air. But this time around, they hit the streets in advance of the referendum, leading tens of thousands to protest in Caracas and thousands more in other cities throughout the month of November.

Indeed, some of Venezuela's poor hit the streets this week for student-led protests rather than pro-Chavez rallies. Luis Escobar grew up in Plan de Manzano, a poor clutter of homes that hang precariously from a hill along an old highway connecting Caracas with the Caribbean coast. He studies telecommunications at UNEFA, a university run by the Armed Forces that often drapes an enormous poster of Chavez over its main building. "People say UNEFA is 100% chavista, but that's not the reality," Escobar said. He attended the opposition's final march on Thursday sporting a university shirt, defying possible reprisals from school directors. "Many friends of mine told me not to put on the shirt because I was already threatened, because they could throw me out of the university," he said at the rally. "They're not going to tie me down or inculcate me with something I don't agree with."

The electoral defeat may indeed slow the president down, but he and his allies still have wide-reaching powers that include control over the legislature, the judiciary, the state oil company and nearly every state government. The students say they know their battle is far from over. "The student movement has said that December 2 isn't an end date," Ricardo Sanchez, a student leader at Venezuela's Central University, said on Sunday at opposition headquarters. "On the contrary, it's a beginning. It's a beginning point for the good things that can be coming for this country."

Jans Eric Gould

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