Wanna Beat Hugo Chavez?
Then learn how to fight Mike Tyson.
They didn’t have to wait long for another opening. On Aug. 15, Chavez proposed a constitutional referendum that would grant him new and significant powers as president. It was an incredibly bold proposal containing 69 separate constitutional amendments. One revision permitted him to declare states of emergency during which he could censor all media outlets. One empowered him to draw up new administrative regions governed by his own handpicked vice presidents. Another made it more difficult to collect signatures to recall the president—a tactic the opposition had attempted in 2004. Perhaps most controversially, one amendment abolished presidential term limits, opening the way for Chavez to be president for life. And, in an effort to help generate public support for the referendum, it was chock full of populist proposals such as a six-hour workday and social security benefits for everyone from street vendors to stay-at-home moms. Chavez was not seeking to merely revise the constitution; he sought to fundamentally change the relationship between state and society. His proposed reforms ran over 44 single-spaced pages.
This time the students had a clear objective: Defeat the referendum. But there was probably no one in Venezuela—including among the students—who would have been willing to wager that they could pull it off. In fact, it wasn’t even clear that students were interested. After Chavez announced his referendum, Barrios remembers they called for a student assembly at his university; eight people showed up. He said student leaders realized that, despite the success they had mobilizing students only a couple months earlier over RCTV, they had to start all over again. “That was a real challenge for us, to jumpstart something that had been spontaneous,” says Barrios.
The movement’s leaders spent nearly a month getting their classmates motivated for the fight. The first step was pure education. They needed to make everyone understand what was at stake and force them to take notice. Some of the referendum’s provisions would allow the government to seize private property. So student organizers would seize the school cafeterias, marking them off with yellow tape and signs saying it was now government property. They filled the universities’ gardens with faux tombstones; on each tombstone, they wrote a political right that would soon expire. As people joined, they were made to feel a part of the movement. Everyone had jobs to do, and felt ownership in the effort, even if they were rank and file. Student leaders became pragmatic about how they branded the movement. They made T-shirts. They created their own version of the Livestrong wrist bracelets. “It needed to be cool for you to be in the student movement,” says Barrios. “And if that’s what you need to do in order to drive thousands of people into the streets, that’s what you need to do.”
The slogan for the opposition parties’ had been “Chavez, Get Out Now!” To the students, that was a mistake. They had no interest in furthering the polarizing war of words that Chavez had started. For starters, the goal was to defeat the referendum, not unseat Chavez. The president had demonstrated his popularity, so the students realized that demonizing Chavez would likely be a losing strategy with voters they needed to sway. “We weren’t against Chavez,” says Goicoechea. “We didn’t start this to take out Chavez. The first important thing that distinguished us was our message. It wasn’t radicalizing people against Chavez. It was inclusive. We started our campaign focused on positive values.” Indeed, they felt so strongly about it that they took pains to avoid even mentioning the president. “I worked on the communications side,” recalls Alvarez, “and we would never say Chavez at all. We would speak about the government. We would always speak about values.”
And, like youth movements elsewhere, the clearest advantage that the students brought was their age and political independence. “People started supporting us because we were too young to be politicians and we were too young to be asking for something in return,” says Alvarez. “We were not fighting to get elected to something.” Such seemingly pure motives put the regime on the defensive. Chavez reverted to his polarizing rhetoric, referring to the students as “rich kids,” “sons of the empire,” and “fascists.” But these attempts to tie the students to the wealthy or the United States largely fell flat with the public. By the fall, it became clear that the student movement had achieved something no one else ever had: Chavez was responding to his opponent’s political message rather than the other way around.
Of course, Chavez brought more than his political rhetoric to this fight. Like all authoritarian leaders, he had the power to suppress the students through force and intimidation. Here the students liked to say that the approach they took to fighting Chavez was like trying to fight Mike Tyson. “If you’re going to fight Mike Tyson, you’re not going to box against him because, even though he is crazy, he’s going to kill you,” says Barrios, laughing. “But if you can challenge him to a game of chess, you might have a chance to defeat Mike Tyson. We’re not going to fight [Chavez’s military or police] because they have guns and weapons; they’d kill us. But if we can take them away from their game and put them in our game, a game that we control, then we can defeat them. Yes, it’s possible that Mike Tyson will get angry after you beat him in chess, and hit you. But if he does that you’re going to have the support of the population. If Mike Tyson hits you in a boxing match, everybody says you deserve it. After all, you went into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson.”
How do you keep Chavez and his regime on its heels? The answer was creative, original, and unexpected protests. It was well and good to have marches and demonstrations in the streets. But the students resisted falling into a pattern of going out, marching, and getting repressed day after day. Instead, in October and November, Venezuelans witnessed an incredible array of new and creative protests led by the students. Like many of the actions they had first taken on their campuses, their demonstrations were often aimed at educating the public about what Chavez’s constitutional referendum would mean for Venezuelan life. Sometimes when they blocked roads they would let people pass only if they could name one article of the constitution Chavez wanted to change. They distributed cartoons that explained the issues in clear and simple language. Instead of a protest with 1,000 people, they would dispatch teams of 10 people to 100 subway stations. There they might distribute newspapers they had created with headlines from the future. Each headline revealed the consequences that had befallen Venezuelans because of the government’s unlimited powers.
Humor proved a potent weapon. “Venezuela is very famous for having Miss Universe. We really care about Miss Venezuela,” Alvarez told me. So the students made a picture of Miss Venezuela from the future—and it was an old lady who refused to give up her crown. “Everyone wants a new girl every year,” says Alvarez, laughing. “But what if the actual Miss Venezuela wanted to keep her crown for 15 years?”
As the date for the referendum approached, security forces became more aggressive. Students and their families started receiving death threats. Students were being beat up at rallies by thugs while the police stood nearby. And individual student leaders began to come under incredible amounts of pressure. None more so than Yon Goicoechea.
In 2007, while Goicoechea was helping to lead the student movement, his own family was in crisis. Earlier that year his father had gone on trial for murder. His father and his family claimed the killing was in self-defense. Regardless of the circumstances, having Goicoechea’s father in prison and on trial gave the regime leverage. One day Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Rodríguez had his bodyguards pick up Goicoechea as he walked down the street. Rodríguez wanted to make a deal. “The vice president of the republic said that he would get my father out of jail if I stopped the protests. I didn’t accept that and my father is still in jail. We have consequences. We sacrifice things. It wasn’t easy.”
I asked Goicoechea to explain. “Did the vice president want you to quit the student movement or undermine it?”
William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter.