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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. 

By Ezra FieserCorrespondent / March 10, 2013

Pedestrians walk past a spray painting of Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, from the 2012 presidential election campaign which he lost to President Hugo Chavez, in Caracas March 7. Just months after the exhausting presidential race, Capriles, 40, is the overwhelming favorite to represent the opposition Democratic Unity coalition in an election following Chavez's death from cancer.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

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Caracas, Venezuela

Weeks before Hugo Chávez died, while he was holed up in a Cuban hospital with details of his condition unknown to the public, youth protesters chained themselves together in front of Cuba’s embassy here, demanding answers.

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“The people deserved to know what was happening,” says Vanessa Eisig, a 21-year-old communications student who participated in the February protest. “We thought we could raise attention by doing it in front of the Cuban embassy.”

Two days later, the government released photos showing Chávez sitting up in his hospital bed, flanked by his two daughters and reading the Cuban daily Granma. The public would not see Chávez, who died Tuesday, again until his body was displayed at a Caracas military academy.

Whether or not the protests helped push the government to release the photo (some have suggested the influence they exerted was minimal), the demonstrations underscored the important role youth play in Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition. The groups are filled with young people raised in a Venezuela in which Chávez was the defining figure. Many came from families who fled the country or whose businesses or lands were expropriated as part of Chávez's so-called 21st-century socialist revolution. 

“These are the sons and daughters of the opposition,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, a Venezuelan-American professor at Pomona College in California who largely defends Chávez's record. “They are not the typical Latin American student movement.”

'We just want freedom'

The youth movements of Latin America’s yesteryear were largely born in public universities in opposition to right-wing dictatorships. Members of these Venezuelan groups may come from different backgrounds – graduates of private schools and members of well-off families – but they say their goal is similar.

“We just want freedom here,” says Julio Cesar Rivas Castillo, the controversial leader of one of the main youth groups, United Active Youth of Venezuela [known by its Spanish acronym JAVU]. “We want economic freedom. We want free elections. We want a free press.”

In their push to reform the system, Chávez was always enemy No. 1. Even as the president lay on his deathbed earlier this month, the group called a protest.

In the heat of Venezuela’s summer, they chained themselves together in front of a Supreme Court office in Caracas.

“All we want to know is if Chávez can govern. If not, we want new elections,” Gabriel Boscan, 23, a law student, said at the time. “Not only the president is sick, the country is sick. There are serious problems that need to be solved: crime, food shortages, and the economy. We can't be without a president for longer."

Their protests were later buttressed by throngs of disenchanted middle-class Venezuelans who marched in the street last Sunday.

Two days later, the government announced Chávez's death.

“Nobody in Venezuela believes Chávez died when they said he died,” Mr. Rivas says. “I think the demonstrations put pressure on them to come out and say it.”

A youth praised and vilified

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