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With Chávez gone, what do his young opponents want now? (+video)

A vibrant youth movement played a major role in Venezuela's beleaguered opposition during the rule of Hugo Chávez. 

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To his supporters, Rivas is a courageous youth leader willing to use whatever passive methods he can to challenge a repressive Venezuelan government.

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The government and Chávistas, however, think he’s a violent militant, a CIA operative, and a pawn of the US in its attempt to discredit and even overthrow the Chávez  government.

At the age of 25, Rivas has been arrested, imprisoned, gone through multiple hunger strikes, vilified, and praised.

“There’s a warrant for my arrest now,” he tells the Monitor during an interview conducted while driving in his black SUV through backstreets of upscale Caracas neighborhoods. “I’ve had to move to a different location out of the city for a while.”

Rivas was a preschooler when Chávez led an unsuccessful coup d’état in 1992. “What I remember from Chávez was violence, … death in the streets,” he says. “That was my first memory of him.… That was my formation.”

Rivas was a teenager when he says the Chávez government expropriated his father’s plastics business, forcing his family to flee to the US, where they live today.

Only 15 when his family left, Rivas stayed behind in Venezuela, alone. He put himself through school and then university. Last year, he won a legislative seat in the state of Carabobo, an opposition stronghold.

He helped found JAVU in 2007, the year that Chávez proposed a constitutional referendum. University student protests helped defeat the referendum, handing Chávez a stinging loss.

Two years later, when Chávez successfully reformed the constitution to abolish term limits, Rivas was arrested and thrown in jail for three weeks. The government said he was trying to set off a civil war.

Internet chat forums filled with speculation about Rivas, suggesting he might be funded by the CIA or by USAID. He was released from jail after going on a hunger strike.

“We don’t receive any funding from anyone outside,” Rivas says. Venezuelans in exile in the United States did help the group organize initially, but Rivas says that it’s Venezuelan civil society that keeps them afloat now.

Will influence endure?

While the group has been a lightning rod for criticism in the past, it is unclear how influential they can be in a post-Chávez Venezuela.

“They think they’re more important than they are,” says an organizer for a youth movement that supports Chávez's socialist party who said he could only speak anonymously due to the group’s rules. “They are on the margins.”

The country’s elections commission on Saturday set the election to replace Chávez for April 14. Interim President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chávez chose as his successor, will likely face Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Chávez beat Capriles, governor of Miranda state, by 11 percentage points in last year’s presidential elections. 

Rivas says the youth groups have “a line of contact” with Capriles, whom they support. But the group will not be campaigning for him.

Instead, Rivas says they will be calling for a change to the election system, including overhauling a process he says gives an unfair advantage to the socialist party by providing real-time information about who is voting. 

“We’re trying to change the system,” he says, “not win an election.”  

* Andrew Rosati contributed from Caracas.

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