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