Venezuela’s student movement will be one of the recipients of the prestigious democracy award at tonight’s closing ceremony of the World Movement for Democracy’s 6th assembly. And for good reason, writes former Iranian student leader Ali Afshari.
All students who struggle against non-democratic regimes will share my happiness that the Venezuelan student movement is receiving this award this evening. I am only one of many who find the movement’s struggles to be fascinating, energetic, and inspirational.
Since coming to power in 1998, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has increasingly closed down political space, undercut the country’s democratic institutions and sought to silence critics and dissident voices.
A recent report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an official body of the Organization of American States, detailed Venezuela’s democratic regression under Chávez.
The report highlights how the regime has undermined judicial independence, intimidated or silenced opposition media, refused to respect the legitimate authority of elected opposition figures and criminalized dissidents, NGOs and human rights groups.
More than 2,200 people have been indicted on criminal charges arising from political activity.
The commission documents the murder of journalists, opposition protesters and farmers, and reports that 173 labor union leaders and members were killed between 1997 and 2009.
The regime has also encroached upon the private sector, seizing food-processing plants and taking control of harbors, airports and roads, denying resources to cities and provinces governed by the opposition.
Venezuela’s oil industry, the state’s cash-cow, is in a critical condition due to mismanagement, lack of investment and acute skills shortages. Daily production has fallen from 3.5 million barrels per day in 1998 (when Chávez came to power) to 2.5 million barrels today
But while the regime squanders the country’s resources, ordinary Venezuelans are suffering from an epidemic of crime and violence, and from shortages of food, power and water.
These trends prompted a group of former Chávistas, to publicly denounce the regime’s rule as “autocratic” and “totalitarian”. They insist that Chávez – quote – “has neither moral nor material authority to rule the country, since he cannot meet people’s demands.”
The government has responded to growing public criticism by moving to stifle dissent. Chávez has called for tougher Internet regulations and demanded a crack down on dissident Web sites.
Chávez recently said –quote – “The Internet cannot be something open where anything is said and done.”
Cuban general Ramiro Valdés recently arrived in Caracas, reportedly to advise on the country’s electricity supply crisis. He has been described as “one of the most brutal enforcers of the Castro regime” since the 1960s when he suppressed popular protests over power rationing. He now joins 30,000 fellow Cubans who hold posts in dozens of state bodies.
It is in this context that Venezuela’s student movement has emerged as one of the few vibrant sources of democratic life in the nation.
The movement arose in May 2007 in response to the regime’s closure of RCTV – the nation’s oldest private TV station. Student-organized rallies mobilized tens of thousands of ordinary citizens, including former Chavez supporters, outraged at the government’s blatant censorship and suppression of dissident voices.
In December 2007, the student movement was a leading force in the campaign to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have further centralized political and economic power in the hands of the regime. The student movement was credited with persuading swing voters to vote no.
As opposition political parties failed to mobilize or restricted their opposition to televised press conferences, students were often the only visible opponents of the proposal.
The students’ reaction to the closure and the referendum was motivated not by ideology or partisan politics but by the notion that, in the words of a student leader, “in a democracy, all sides should be welcome.”
Despite government provocation and calls for attacks on the students, the movement remains committed to the non-violent promotion of democracy by encouraging young people to register to vote and training an impressive 50,000 young observers to monitor elections.
Security forces used tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannon to break up student protests against the referendum after Chavez called the students “spoiled brats” and “children of the bourgeoisie”.
But the movement attracts students from all walks of life and even welcomes pro-Chavez students to its meetings and rallies. The movement is active in the huge public universities as well as elite private colleges.
“What happened in 2007 is that the students suddenly discovered they had power,” a prominent Venezuelan professor has said. “One of the things Chavez has tried to do is to promote a citizenship with a political consciousness. He got it. But the paradox is most of them are against him.”
The students have now shifted their focus from constitutional issues to the main concerns of ordinary citizens suffering from rampant crime, power shortages, and cuts in water supply. The movement’s main campaign slogan is now “Electricity, water, crime: tas ponchao!”
The expression, which means “You struck out”, draws on Venezuelans’ obsession with baseball. Students have unfurled banners with the slogan at televised baseball games, reportedly infuriating the president.
The student movement does not describe itself as an opposition or as an anti-Chavista force. Its young leaders have consistently said that they do not want to overthrow the government in any unconstitutional coup, and they have been critical of opposition political parties as well as the regime.
The students insist that both the regime and opposition should respect fundamental democratic principles.
As one prominent student leader said:
“This is not a war of left and right. We believe that Venezuela has to have democracy. Democracy means respect. Democracy means free expression. Democracy means saying what you want without repression.”
These words could also have been uttered by any member of Iran’s opposition Green movement and, as a former student leader, I am encouraged to hear of growing links between Green student activists in Iran and their Venezuelan counterparts, using social media like Twitter and Facebook.
- As a vital pillar of civil society, students are engines of change and are often at the forefront of democratic struggles for perhaps obvious reasons:
- Universities and colleges are centers of development and enlightenment, and they cannot function without freedom of expression.
- The diversity of student populations means students must collaborate and work with others across cultural, ideological, social and economic divides;
- And student movements are mutable and dynamic – they change and adapt to changing circumstances.
Chavez has attacked the students’ on-line social networks. He recently declared that “using Twitter, the internet (and) text messaging” to criticize his regime “is terrorism”. His government has copied the tactics of his close friend and ally Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and launched a “cyber army” to crash students’ online networks and to infiltrate the movement.
Just as autocratic leaders like Chavez and Ahmedinejad are forging alliances and trading tactics, so it is imperative that democratic student movements like those in Iran and Venezuela share our successes and failures, learn from each other and support each others’ efforts.