University student Elena Mela had never protested in her life.
But last week she joined thousands of students in the streets of Caracas to fight against Sunday's referendum on President Hugo Chávez's plan to scrap term limits on his rule. "This will change our entire country," says Ms. Mela. "I will keep fighting for my values."
Despite recent polls showing a decline in support for Mr. Chávez's proposed constitutional reforms, most analysts say he will prevail. But unlike other chapters in his eight-year reign, the growing opposition among students and even from members within his own party – including a longtime ally and former general – could signal that he is pushing changes too fast and too hard.
"There is a fairly widespread discontent, whichdoesn't have much political expression as of now," says Edgardo Lander, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela. "I think this is a serious problem because the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government up to now has to a great extent come from the fact that they have never gone beyond the constitution. Now for the first time there is a break in constitutional norms. I think it will eventually weaken the government."
In addition to abolishing presidential term limits, Chávez's proposed reforms would lower the voting age to 16 from 18, reduce the workday from eight to six hours, and establish Venezuela as a socialist state, among scores of other changes.
The referendum has provoked an enormous – and at times tense – display of people power. One man was shot dead on Monday as he tried to drive his truck through an area blocked by protesters.
Among a fractured opposition, students have emerged as the most cohesive antireferendum force.
"The students have woken up the Venezeulan population to show that discontent goes beyond the political parties," says Enrique Márquez, the vice president for organization within Un Nuevo Tiempo, an opposition party.
But students have been careful not to link themselves to the opposition, which has been defeated repeatedly at the ballot box since Chávez, was first elected in 1998. Students say they are focused solely on the referendum – not on the ouster of Chávez as the opposition often calls for.
"We all understand this is not about getting the president out; if he is there or not we'll still have the same problems," says Alejandro Narvaez, one of the student organizers, after class at the Central University of Venezuela.
Students, as they have across Latin America, have played important roles in Venezuela, protesting its dictatorships, first in 1928 and then again 30 years later. But during the Chávez regime they had remained quiet – until the shutdown of an opposition television station in late May that was widely watched by Venezuelans of all economic backgrounds.
This is the first time they emerged in force during his rule, and analysts say it caught the country off-guard. "This went after something that really touched a nerve," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "It was the first egregious example of overreaching [by Chávez]."
While the student movement stems largely from private universities or more elite ones like the public Central University of Venezuela, students resent the fact that Chávez has linked them to the so-called oligarchy – at one point calling them "rich bourgeois brats."
"I'm not the daughter of rich parents, like the president says," says Mela, who voted for Chávez during his first election because the country needed a change, she says, and put herself through school with a scholarship and job.
To be sure, there are also tens of thousands of students on Chávez's side.
Doors and walls at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, opened by Chávez in 2003 to give access to scores of students who otherwise might not have a chance to attend university, are plastered with red stickers reading "Sí," a call to vote "Yes" on the amendment changes.
César Trompiz, a member of the President's Student Commission for Popular Power, says that it is ironic that some students are protesting of the "revolution." "The opposition has lost everything in this country but private companies and universities; this is all they have left," he says. "[The opposition students] have kidnapped the symbols of student protest. No student in the world would protest to defend a company, or a [university] rector."
Still, some say that Chávez should be more concerned about former allies who have come out against him – most notably his former Defense Minister Gen. Raul Baduel, who recently called the reform package a "coup."
Mr. Lander says such discontent among Chávez supporters will be the new challenge for the government in the coming years. "There are a lot of [discontented] people who will vote 'yes,' because they don't want the opposition to win and don't want to weaken the government," says Lander. "It won't have that much impact on this referendum, but it is a new part of the political situation."
• Daniel Cancel contributed from Caracas.