During the past month, tens of thousands of Venezuelan students have led massive demonstrations protesting President Hugo Chavez' decision to shut down the country's most popular private television station. VOA's Michael Bowman recently visited Caracas' largest university, which serves as a bastion of debate and student activism.
Students are taking final exams at Venezuela's Central University, after missing several weeks of classes to take to the streets, mobilizing against what they see as a clear threat to freedom of expression in their country.
Political science major Ana Cristina Garanton says she took part in countless marches and protests that caught the attention of the nation and the international community. Garanton says the battle extends beyond the fate of Radio Caracas Television, whose broadcast license the Chavez government refused to renew in late May, accusing it of inciting rebellion.
She says,"We are fighting for the rights we should have as students so that when I graduate I can pursue any career without being discriminated against for political reasons. Our parents will one day leave the country to us. And it is up to us, the young people, to take the reins of the county."
Garanton adds that students are well aware that their activism could cause them to be blacklisted by the government, making it harder for them to secure employment after graduation. She says, "We are considered a threat because we criticize the government and make demands when things are unsatisfactory."
But opinions are far from uniform on campus. Pro-Chavez law student Lenin Sosa believes those who protest the closing of RCTV are misguided, defending a station that openly allied itself with the country's political opposition. He says, "A channel that obeys individual and capitalistic interests can never represent the will of the majority that desires humanitarian and social development with solidarity and honesty."
Polls show the closing of RCTV to be vastly unpopular, even among some who share President Chavez' socialist ideals.
Communications major Carlos Julio Rojas is a self-described Marxist who has also taken part in street protests. He says, "At the beginning of the year, the government said that, to impose [its program of] '21st Century Socialism,' it would be necessary to control communications in the country. That is undemocratic. We believe in debate, freedom of thought. You cannot impose an ideology in a university, because it is there that all forms of thought should be allowed."
Political science professor Fernando Falcon says students have historically been at the forefront of Venezuela's most important political movements, and often serve as an early indicator of future political thought in the country. Falcon says it is no surprise that students have reacted with great passion to a perceived threat to freedom of expression. He says, "They are not pressing to remove the president from office. They are not asking for any change in the government's domestic or international policies. The only thing they want is respect for civil liberties, and no one is more sensitive to [threats to] liberty than the young."
That President Chavez has alienated large segments of Venezuela's future professional class would appear to be beyond question. But what impact it will have on the president's stated goal of remaining in power until the year 2030 remains to be seen.
For now, political science major Ginett Luces is focused on her final exams. But she says she has no regrets about missing several weeks of classes. She says, "I think when you forego classes for a good cause, you become more energized to get ahead, to read, to fight for what you believe in."