Humanizing the Revolution

If President Hugo Chávez has dreamed of turning Venezuela into a Cuba with oil, the Venezuelans who oppose him have discovered the perfect antidote: the student movement.

At the time of last month’s referendum on Mr. Chávez’s efforts to remake the Constitution to his liking, I got to know some of the “chamos,” as the student activists are known. What struck me was not only how effective they were, but how different their movement was from almost all its many antecedents in the region.

Most important, the Venezuelans are not calling for socialist revolution, but for liberal democracy. Instead of vindicating the statist ideologies of the 20th century or the romantic passions of the 19th, they have embraced classic 18th-century humanism. “Our struggle is historic,” Yon Goicoechea, a law student at Andrés Bello Catholic University and one of the political movement’s leaders, told me as we sat, along with eight of his fellow leaders, in the offices of the independent newspaper El Nacional. They had brought with them pads and pens, but I was the one who learned and took notes. As Mr. Goicoechea puts it, “Like Martin Luther King, we do not fight against a man, we fight for the vindication of civil and human rights for everyone in Venezuela.”

As with the radicals who preceded them, they have genuine concern for the poor. But they also have concrete plans to develop their country, and they embody a hope for reconciliation across the brutal divisions of Venezuelan society.

Student movements have long been a decisive factor in Latin American politics. The first erupted in Córdoba, Argentina, in 1918, over the seemingly innocent ideal of “university autonomy.” In 1921, an International Congress of Students was convened in Mexico; one of its goals was to set up a continent-wide repudiation of Venezuela’s dictator, Juan Vicente Gómez. In 1928, Venezuelan students tried to overthrow him. They failed, but their movement forged the generation responsible for the democratic pact that — despite its many deficiencies and discontinuities — so displeases Mr. Chávez today.

By this time, however, almost all of the student movements (in Mexico, Cuba, Colombia and elsewhere) were fascinated by the Russian revolution. The students wanted to be like “Sachka Yegulev,” the young idealist from Leonid Andreyev’s novel of the same name, who sacrificed his life for liberty. Yet when they rose to power, all of them — including Rómulo Betancourt, the student leader of 1928 who became the father of Venezuelan democracy in the 1940s — chose another Russian role model: Lenin.

This idea was, of course, most effectively fulfilled in 1959 by Fidel Castro. The Cuban revolution was a watershed: two generations of revolutionaries (radicalized university students, not workers or peasants) dreamed of following Mr. Castro’s example and fell under the even greater spell cast by Che Guevara.

This radical trend — along with its natural consequence, fierce anti-Americanism — was further encouraged by the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. The result was tragic: tens of thousands (young and old, Marxist and non-Marxist) were sacrificed in Argentina and Chile by the military dictators.

Amid the tragedy, however, came a process of maturation. In the early 1980s politically active baby boomers in Latin America split between bloody revolution and changing the system from within. In Mexico, some veterans of the 1960s movement began to understand the value of liberal democracy and for the first time proposed it as a viable alternative to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Winds of freedom from Eastern Europe helped as well. By the late 1990s most of Latin America’s right-wing dictators had been thrown out of government by votes, not bullets. Something similar happened to the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Guerrilla movements lost their utopian aura. And in Cuba, where rebellious students have never been tolerated, the Caribbean Lenin seemed lonelier than ever.

Latin America is the region of the eternal return of the past. A serious threat was needed to resurrect students’ inner Sachka Yegulev. It had to be something that challenged not only their professional future but also the viability of a nation’s democracy. That danger has clearly become manifest in Mr. Chávez’s project, expressed by his favorite phrase, “Socialism or Death.”

By some estimates, around 120,000 of Venezuela’s university students have become politically active since May, when the government closed the nation’s oldest television station, a step toward complete nationalization of the media.

Then came Mr. Chávez’s attempt to give himself nearly absolute power through the Dec. 2 referendum. The students responded with assemblies, workshops, marches, bulletins, fliers and telephone and e-mail campaigns, all designed to make ordinary Venezuelans understand that abstention was suicide.

“In order to prove that they have disregarded your vote, you must vote,” Mr. Goicoechea, the law student, repeatedly warned a skeptical public. “We are not going to avoid election fraud by staying at home watching TV.”

Mr. Chávez tried to denigrate the student leaders by calling them “mama’s boys” and “imperialists’ lackeys,” and suggested that they stop agitating and “go study.” But this was nonsense: the students come largely from the middle classes, and some of the most popular among them come from poor backgrounds, including Ricardo Sánchez, the leader of Central University’s student federation. This is why, for once, the poorest urban residents didn’t agree with their beloved strongman — they publicly expressed their support for the students and, in huge numbers, either voted against Mr. Chávez or punished him by abstaining.

When the true story of that tense night of Dec. 2 is written — of the hours spent authorizing ballots at the National Council of Elections to prove that the Chávez plan had failed by a whisker — the record will show that students were a key factor in the resistance. I remain struck by a text message sent by one of the student leaders inside the elections office to a colleague outside that night: “I’m scared but freedom is as valuable as life.”

Overcoming that fear led them to victory. And in victory they were wise and generous. “Our victory has to be looked at with humility,” insisted another law-student leader, Stalin González. In our meeting at the offices of El Nacional, one activist expressed pride in the outcome of a post-election public meeting to which they had invited pro-Chávez students: “We welcomed them with a standing ovation; after that they wouldn’t attack us.”

Mr. Goicoechea told me, “Our objective will not be met in a month or in a year, so we have to prepare for the long struggle that awaits us.” The task will be more arduous than they imagine. Mr. Chávez has warned he will present another set of “reforms,” possibly as soon as next year. And even if he fails again, the students must keep their moral authority alive for the remaining five years of his term.

Will they make up a new political party? Can they remain united? Their enemy is formidable, and the chances of a violent or even tragic conclusion are very likely. But against the Chávez slogan, “Socialism or Death,” they have their own: “Liberty and Life.” In the battle of words they might have the upper hand. Perhaps they can take hope from a line by the Mexican poet-diplomat Octavio Paz: “We must give back transparency to words.”

Enrique Krauze, the editor of the magazine Letras Libres and the author of Mexico: Biography of Power.