To Oppose Chávez, Youth In Caracas Rally Behind Stalin
John Lyons and José Córdoba
Wall Street Journal
November 24, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela — As Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez attempts to push through what he calls 21st-Century Socialism, his biggest obstacle is an army of students led by a leftist named Stalin.
Ivan Stalin González, who prefers to be called just plain Stalin, is president of the student body at the Central University of Venezuela, or UCV, Venezuela’s biggest public university. During the past few weeks, Mr. González and other student leaders here have organized protest marches by tens of thousands of students opposed to a constitutional referendum set for Dec. 2. The proposed changes would dramatically expand Mr. Chávez’s power and allow him to seek perpetual re-election.
“Historically, students have represented the hope and conscience of Venezuela,” says Mr. González, who, unlike his bushy-moustached and sinister-mannered Soviet namesake, is scruffy-bearded and laid-back.
The student movement has taken the government by surprise, highlighting an embarrassing irony for the fiery Mr. Chávez: University students, long a bastion of the left here as in the rest of Latin America, are overwhelmingly opposed to him. They have also emerged, along with the Catholic Church, as among the last major opposition to Mr. Chávez in a country where he already controls the congress, courts, army and most media outlets.
Elia López, a 22-year-old architecture student at UCV, worries that by the time she is designing buildings, the only client will be the state, limiting her creativity. “Imagine if you studied to do something creative, and suddenly you couldn’t do it, or you could do it only if your ideas were the same as the government,” she said.
Variations of that concern are almost universal among Venezuela’s university students, whether they are majoring in sociology, dentistry or law. In a UCV campus election that became national news in mid-November, anti-Chávez student slates won 91% of the vote. Mr. Chávez’s student supporters garnered 9%.
Students like Mr. González have traditionally played an outsized role in Latin America’s turbulent politics. In the 1950s, University of Havana students led a struggle against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro, who forced Mr. Batista from power — and who is Mr. Chávez’s revered mentor — got his start as a student leader at the university. In Mexico, a massacre of students and other protestors in 1968 helped inspire the creation of half a dozen small guerilla groups in the 1970s.
And in Venezuela, UCV holds an important place in political history. In 1957, a student strike that began here eventually led to the downfall of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Half a century later, many Venezuelans hope Mr. Chávez will meet his political Stalingrad at UCV. “Student struggles have always preceded great historical changes,” says Fernando Ochoa, a former defense minister who was jailed when he participated in the 1957 strike as a high school student.
The sprawling UCV campus shows the scars of battles between pro- and anti-Chávez students earlier this month, involving stones, homemade bombs and gunfire. The law school’s student-center room, a base for Chávez supporters, still smells of charred wood and plastic from a fire that recently destroyed it. Workmen are still cleaning up the School of Social Work. There, pro-Chávez students barricaded themselves for several hours during a standoff with a crowd of students, until a group of armed civilians on motorcycles intervened to allow the Chávez supporters to escape.
On a recent day, the student radio station that plays constantly from speakers around the campus augmented the usual salsa tunes with student-movement classics, such as “Age of Aquarius” from the musical “Hair.” Protest marches, although sometimes met with violence by police, have been generally marked by whimsy and wit.
Taking to the streets, students have thrust their palms up in the air. The idea: They are a peaceful movement, bearing no weapons. This week, at a student press conference, a tortoise bearing the initials of Venezuela’s Supreme Court crept across a table while students complained that the court had been slow to take up their challenge to the proposed constitutional changes. (The court rejected the students’ request to delay the referendum to give citizens more time to study the proposals.)
Anti-Chávez sentiment on Venezuelan campuses burst into the open in May, when the government pulled the plug on RCTV, a television network critical of Mr. Chávez. Tens of thousands of students viewed the move as a blow to freedom of speech. They were also alarmed by Mr. Chávez’s promises that the “revolution within the university” would be next — likely expanding government control over areas like the curriculum. They took to the streets, creating a protest movement in campuses across the country. The Dec. 2 referendum has sparked a round of new protests.
Caught off guard, Mr. Chávez has called the students “terrorists” and written them off as “pampered, rich mama’s boys.” UCV, which charges no tuition, has a range of students, from the scions of businessmen to the sons of taxi drivers.
Mr. Chávez’s description also hardly fits Mr. González. The 27-year-old, sixth-year law student grew up in a poor household that dreamed of a Communist Venezuela. His father, a print-machine operator, was a high-ranking member of the Bandera Roja, or Red Flag, a hard-line Marxist-Leninist party that maintained a guerrilla force until as recently as the mid-1990s. Its members revered Josef Stalin as well as Albania’s xenophobic Enver Hoxha. As a boy, Mr. González remembers packing off to marches with his sisters, Dolores Engels and Ilyich, named in honor of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
As a young man, Mr. González burnished his leftist credentials, joining Marxist youth groups and following his father into the Bandera Roja. He traveled to Socialist youth conferences in Latin America.
Mr. González was still in his teens when Mr. Chávez was voted into office in late 1998. Even then, he says, he was skeptical about Mr. Chávez’s socialist rhetoric, as are many Venezuelan leftists. Mr. Chávez, a lieutenant colonel who had staged an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, would be more authoritarian than egalitarian, Mr. González reasoned.
He says his suspicions were confirmed when Mr. Chávez started forming the “Bolivarian Circles” of civilian supporters, some of which turned into armed gangs used to break up opposition gatherings. “Military men belong in the barracks,” he said.
Still seeking to make a life out of left-wing politics, Mr. González enrolled in 2001 at UCV. Rising in the ranks of the student body can be a fast track into political life, and as head of the 40,000-member student federation, his studies have taken a back seat to politics. He plans to graduate next year.
Even before the recent marches, Mr. González took positions on Venezuela that set him apart from other leftists. In 2003, organizers of a conference for young socialists in Guadalajara, Mexico, jumped him to the top of the speakers’ list.
“I think they saw my name, Ivan Stalin, from Venezuela, and put me first,” he says.
They regretted the move, he says. Speaking about a coup attempt against Mr. Chávez the year before, Mr. González pointed out that Mr. Chávez had been reinstated by generals in the military — not by a popular protest of supporters as the audience seemed to think.
“After I spoke, the place went nuts. All the Cubans were lining up to denounce me,” Mr. González says. He says he wasn’t invited to the group’s meeting this year in Quito, Ecuador.
For all his disappointment with Mr. Chávez’s brand of leftism, Mr. González still holds a candle for his revolutionary heroes. He has a signed copy of a seven-hour speech Fidel Castro delivered at the university several years ago. “I never got bored,” he says.
He also hasn’t totally broken with his namesake, who was responsible for the deaths of millions. “Of course, there’s the murder and repression,” he says. But the Soviet leader defeated Hitler, he says, and propagated ideas of fairness and sharing that inspired the left in subsequent decades. “He was important for publicizing some important ideas.”
See also : Media lies about Venezuela’s democratic revolution, Lauren Carroll Harris, Green Left Weekly, November 17, 2007 (and generally) for supportive accounts | El Libertario for anarchist analyses from Venezuela (English)