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Student leaders 1, Chávez 0. Next: a referendum rematch

By Tyler BridgesMcClatchy Newspapers / February 12, 2009

CARACAS, VENEZUELA – Three university students became President Hugo Chávez's worst nightmare 15 months ago.

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The student leaders – Stalin Gonzalez, Yon Goicoechea and Freddy Guevara – revitalized Venezuela's moribund political opposition and led the movement that in December 2007 inflicted the only national election defeat that Mr. Chávez has suffered during his 10 years of power.

The three are back, and they're opposing Chávez again as he makes a second attempt Sunday to win a national referendum that asks Venezuelans whether to allow him to seek re-election indefinitely.

Supporters continued to treat Gonzalez, Goicoechea, and Guevara like political rock stars at a massive anti-Chávez street march Saturday, calling out their names and crowding around to snap photos.

"I always wanted to be in politics but never thought I'd be so famous," Gonzalez said earlier, as he greeted well-wishers while riding the Caracas subway to the rally. Gonzalez noted that Chávez telephoned him the day before during a televised news conference.

"Chávez called you?" a man with an eye patch asked Gonzalez. "Yeah," he replied. "He said that he wanted the march to be carried out peacefully and that he doesn't favor violence."

Having finished their studies, Gonzalez, Goicoechea, and Guevara are assisting a new crop of student leaders who are organizing massive street marches and mobilizing public opinion against Chávez and the whole machinery of government that's backing him.

Gonzalez, Goicoechea, and Guevara are now youth activists for Venezuelan political parties that oppose Chávez.

Polls find that Sunday's referendum could go either way, although Chavez seems to have a slight advantage.

The stakes are huge. Chavez desperately wants to lift term limits so he can seek re-election in 2012 and thereafter, and continue to lead the anti-US bloc in Latin America.

In a measure of the stakes, government forces broke up two peaceful student marches recently with tear gas and arrests. The secret police raided the home of one student activist in the middle of the night last month and arrested him.

"We have filled a vacuum of power and become the symbol of opposition to Chávez," Guevara said.

By 2007, the opposition to Chávez was reeling. He'd discredited the country's two traditional political parties when he was elected president during an economic crisis in 1998. He then won re-election, survived a recall attempt and won another re-election campaign, all the while outsmarting his opponents.

In May 2007, however, Chávez closed RCTV, a television station that's popular with ordinary Venezuelans because of its soap operas and with the president's critics because its news programs cast him in a harsh light.

Enter Gonzalez, Goicoechea, and Guevara. They organized street demonstrations against Chávez that breathed life into the opposition.

Still, Chavez seemed likely to lift term limits when he announced a national referendum in December 2007.

The student leaders decided to challenge him.

Guevara, a communications major, was the president of the student federation at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. A one-time drama student who studied leadership, Guevara became the bridge among the often-fractious student organizations.

Gonzalez, a law school major, was the president of the main student federation at the Central University of Venezuela. His leftist parents raised him to be a true socialist, even naming him, his sister, Ilich, and his other sister, Engels, for the Marxist triumvirate of Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Friedrich Engels.

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