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June 5 2012 2:12 PM

Wanna Beat Hugo Chavez?

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“If the vice president had told me if I quit, my father would be out of jail, I would have quit,” replied Goicoechea, with no hesitation. “What I couldn’t do was to stop something that was bigger than me and that I was responsible for. I have consequences and I pay daily.” After Goicoechea refused the vice president’s offer, the charges against his father were changed in order to raise his possible prison sentence. Instead of 6 years, Goicoechea’s father was sentenced to 20 years. After a few moments, Goicoechea says quietly, “They intimidate and they play hard.”

Six Bulletproof Vests

On Sunday, Dec. 2, Venezuelans came out to vote on the referendum. Neither side knew if it had the votes to win. The bluffing began almost right away.

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Yon Goicoechea got a phone call from a Chavista student leader at noon. He said he needed to meet with Goicoechea and it was important. “We got together in a public place and there was a very high functionary of the secret police there,” recalls Goicoechea. “And the high functionary of the secret police told me that they had the information that they had won. He offered all the resources that I need—

whatever that means—to avoid bloodshed in Venezuela. Of course, the way to avoid it was to not go to the streets.” After using his father’s fate to threaten Goicoechea, the regime was now resorting to bribery. Goicoechea simply needed to convince his fellow student leaders not to protest the outcome of the election.

Goicoechea knew that the regime didn’t actually know if it had won or not. It was only midday and people were still voting. But he could just as easily bluff. So, he told the officer of the secret police that they had information that the students had won. “If we win, we will go to the streets and defend it,” Goicoechea replied. “And if you want to avoid bloodshed that is your responsibility because you are the national security.”

The students had no illusions about what it would take to triumph on Dec. 2, 2007. Goicoechea told me that there are two things you must have if you want to win an election in Venezuela. “You have to win and you have to have the Army. If one of those elements fails, you lose. Because the Army won’t defend you if you lose, and if you win, and the Army does not defend you, you also lose.”

It wasn’t that the military needed to support your goals or your political project. Rather, it needed to see the costs of overturning an election as too great to pursue. “One thing is understanding how the military works, especially in countries like Venezuela,” says Barrios. “If there is a degree of institutionalism still alive in the military, they would take the decision that requires the less use of force. So we wanted to create a credible threat, saying that if you don’t recognize the official result, you’re going to have to use an incredible amount of force.”

Throughout the day information coming into their headquarters was largely positive, but the students had no idea if they were winning. Even at its best, they believed any lead they might have remained within the margin of error. Nevertheless, they did nothing but project confidence. Around 7 p.m., Goicoechea, smiling from ear to ear, gave a press conference congratulating students and supporters for their work and saying that all that was left to do was defend the vote. The clear subtext was that they had won, and it was just a matter of being announced. His bravado was pure theater. He had no idea if they were ahead or not.

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