29 April 2008

Inspiring student leadership from Venezuela

I suspect I am not the only person who is cycnical about student politics. My parents' generation demonstrated for free love and against Vietnam, but when the 1968 generation came to power, they were self-indulgent and spineless (Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schröder come to mind). The student union 'leaders' during my time Oxford spent 90% of their time debating arcane matters of student politics. The only two substantial protests they organized were against student tuition fees (a bad cause) and against the Iraq war (which the government ignored).

How refreshing, then, to hear from the leaders of a Venezuelan student movement who have, in the space of only a year, built a non-partisan coalition that is changing the face of Venezuelan politics. The students began by protesting against the closure of Venezuela's oldest TV channel, RCTV, in 2007. They moved on to President Chavez's attempts to abolish presidential term limits in a constitutional referendum in December 2007, which Chavez lost narrowly - his first electoral defeat since 1998.

There seem to be two reasons for the students' success. One, they avoid the sterile pro-Chavez/anti-Chavez debate by recognizing that "Chavez is a product of historic forces". In other words, he's the government, like it or not, and the questions is how to make life better for Venezuelans and safeguard freedom and democracy. Two, their non-violent tactics stand in contrast to their (initially) harsh treatment at the hand of security forces and 'Chavistas'.

The representatives from the student movement who spoke at the Kennedy School were impressively articulate, both in Spanish and English and deeply sincere. I was inspired by their example and hope they manage to avoid the cynicism and careerism that affects student 'movements' elsewhere. Two reservations, though. One, they still looked and sounded like members of the elite (not surprisingly, perhaps, given the high cost of tuition at good universities). Two, they were in the USA to accept the 'Milton Friedman prize for liberty' from the Cato Institute. One can't begrudge them the money, but doesn't this increase the risk that Chavez and others will denounce them as imperialist stooges?

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