This article is excerpted from William J. Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.
In October, Henrique Capriles, the leader of the Venezuelan opposition, will square off against President Hugo Chavez at the polls. The opposition knows it has its work cut out for it. Despite a dismal economy and skyrocketing crime, Chavez will pull out all the stops to win, as he always does. But there is one time that Chavez lost at the ballot box. It was a defeat handed to him in large part because of the creativity, energy, and ingenuity of the Venezuelan student movement and a handful of young people who lead them. If today’s Venezuela political opposition wants to succeed, they should learn from the youth.
In late 2006, Hugo Chavez couldn’t lose. Venezuela’s charismatic president was at the peak of his power. That December, he was re-elected in a landslide victory, trouncing the opposition candidate by 26 percent. A year earlier he had secured complete control of the National Assembly when the same political opposition boycotted the parliamentary election. His coffers were overflowing. Oil prices were already at more than $60 a barrel—up more than three and half times from what they were when he came to power—and showed no signs of slowing down. The opposition’s election defeat was just the most recent drubbing in a string of losses going back to 1998. On election night, when Chavez walked out onto the balcony of the presidential palace and looked out over Venezuela, there was virtually no opponent left to conquer. If he was going to have a fight, Chavez was going to have to look for enemies. Which might explain why his next target was a TV station.
Radio Caracas Televisión, or as it was best known, RCTV, had been broadcasting for 53 years. It was the oldest television station in Venezuela, and the channel occupied first place in the ratings, with 40 percent of the viewing public. Although almost all of its programming was entertainment shows—it was home to some of Venezuela’s most beloved Latin soap operas—the editorial line in its news coverage took a clearly critical view of Chavez. So, a few weeks after winning his new term in office, Chavez, dressed in military fatigues, announced that he would not be renewing the government concession that allowed RCTV to operate. Come May 28, 2007, when its contract would lapse, RCTV would go off the air. Most Venezuelans, even the president’s own supporters, were stunned. RCTV was an institution, the TV channel everyone had grown up watching. Polls showed that 65 to 80 percent of the public was against its closure. Chavez was undaunted.
Douglas Barrios was a fourth-year student of economics at Metropolitan University at the time. He was 20 years old, so, like most of his classmates, he was part of the first generation of young Venezuelans to come of age under Chavez. Barrios was in sixth grade when Chavez was first elected, so he didn’t really remember what it was like to have anyone other than Hugo Chavez as president. But he does remember sitting at home on the night of May 27, 2007. In the months leading up to that day, Barrios and many of his friends in school had watched in disbelief as no one came forward to organize opposition to the president’s decree. “When I try to explain it to people, I say it’s like they shut down NBC, ABC, and CBS at the same time,” says Barrios. And that night, precisely at midnight, RCTV went dark. The final image people saw was of the station’s journalists, news anchors, actors, and employees singing the national anthem, many of them crying, as they waved goodbye. “You were sitting in front of your TV, probably the lights were off, and you saw this TV station go to static,” recalls Barrios. “It just represented how choice can go away, how your options can go away, how something that’s very very established can just go to static.”
Geraldine Alvarez, a student at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, remembers that night the same way. She was a fourth-year student, studying advertising and journalism. Growing up, she had never been particularly interested in politics. But the day before the RCTV closure, her classmates had elected her to the University Council. She had always assumed becoming active in student government would mean little more than organizing academic debates. She certainly didn’t see it as a pathway into politics. That all changed on May 28. “It was the first time I felt the government was coming into my house and telling me not to do something,” says Alvarez. “That was the reason why so many people felt so shocked. The next day we closed the university.”
At first, the reaction was spontaneous. Venezuelan student leaders from that time all say there was no carefully choreographed plan. They hadn’t thought much beyond the next few hours. Certainly no one thought their actions were about to give birth to a movement. But a small group of students from the five major universities across Caracas had decided that May 28, 2008, couldn’t be just another day. On that morning students, numbering in the hundreds, got up early and stood out in front of their various universities to protest what everyone had seen on television the night before. They were angry. “We just said tomorrow can’t be a normal day,” says Barrios. “Because if we allow this to be normal, if we allow ourselves to accept this as normal, then we will be losing a bit of ourselves.”
As it happens, Caracas’ five major universities occupy strategic positions around the city. Four of the universities are located at the entrances to Caracas; the fifth is smack in the middle of the city. So if even a relatively small number of people were to blockade the roads in front of these universities, it would shut down the city. And that is precisely what these students did.
Not surprisingly, the student protesters were quickly met with resistance. The government dispatched police and National Guard units to break up the blockades. Students at the Metropolitan University were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets. They had no choice but to retreat back into their university. When they tried to return to the street, they were beaten back again. Rather than accept the stalemate, student leaders decided to regroup. They would leave their schools and start to amass at Plaza Brión. The plaza was in a safer part of town, it had a metro stop, and the authorities weren’t expecting them there. And that was when their numbers began to grow.
When other students, friends, and family heard about the clashes in front of the universities, many decided to show their solidarity. Whereas in the morning they had been only hundreds of students spread out over five universities, they were soon more than 2,000 people in Plaza Brión. That number continued to climb until, by most estimates, there were nearly 10,000 people assembled there by the afternoon. Eventually, they filled the plaza and began to spill out onto surrounding streets. Again, the regime dispatched the police and National Guard to disperse the crowds. But the rally had hit a chord. The next day protests erupted again. But instead of just those in Caracas, students at other universities in other major cities began to stage their own blockades and demonstrations. “We weren’t people with a plan,” says Yon Goicoechea, a law student and student leader from Andrés Bello Catholic University, who soon became the most recognizable face of the Venezuelan student movement. “But we understood that we needed to do something the next day. We had to guide that spontaneous expression. We couldn’t imagine the dimensions of the protest.”
For the next month, student protests against the closing of RCTV took place every day. Even though the demonstrations had clearly caught a spark and spread quickly, they had, in truth, almost no chance of changing anything. Chavez had already forced RCTV off the airwaves and replaced it with a government-owned channel. If the goal had been to save RCTV, then it was already lost. But that had not been the goal. Rather, the protests in May and June 2007 announced the presence of the student movement as a force in Venezuelan political life going forward. “We did not achieve a concrete objective,” admits Goicoechea. “But when you are in a dictatorship the act of giving hope and defeating fear is a very important objective in itself.” If no one else was going to stand up to Chavez, then the students would.