Students Lead Attack on Chavez Venezuela's university students have emerged as leaders against sweeping constitutional reforms sought by President Hugo Chavez. Opponents say the reforms are a dangerous move for power by an authoritarian ruler.
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There is another important vote this weekend, this one in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez is pushing a referendum that among other things would eliminate term limits for him. Opponents say they have enough votes to defeat that referendum. And at the head of the opposition: students.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas, Venezuela.

(Soundbite of protesters)

JUAN FORERO: Another day, another protest in Venezuela - much to the government's chagrin.

Mr. STALIN GONZALES (Law Student): (Through translator) (Unintelligible) trying to get Chavez out, but to fight for a new country, fight against totalitarianism.

FORERO: That was Stalin Gonzales who, like his namesake, is a leftist leader. A law student at the sprawling Public University, he is among the most prominent leaders of the surging student movement that is bitterly opposed to the proposed constitutional reform. If approved in a national referendum on Sunday, the 69 reforms expand President Chavez's powers and permit him to run for reelection indefinitely. But Gonzales stresses is that he's on the democratic left and that the government of Venezuela is not.

Mr. GONZALES: (Through translator) I think they're obsessed and in love with the power.

FORERO: Such comments have angered the president and his closest associates. They say that they brought democracy to Venezuela, giving voice to poor masses that had long been ignored by past governments. Instead of handing power to the president, the government says, the reformed constitution would streamline bureaucracy and give influence to community councils run by the people. They also say the students are fascists and spoiled brats, the scions of the moneyed classes.

Still, the government seems worried. Chavez is campaigning hard for a yes vote to the reforms. He spoke at a recent rally.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through translator) We shouldn't claim victory. The game is not won until we get the last man out. We will win the yes vote, but we have to work very hard.

FORERO: Long-time political analysts who've been observing the political scene here say that the students have emerged as the conscience of a country. They filled a vacuum left by the disintegration of the traditional political parties, which Chavez paralyzed with one electoral victory after another since 1998. The students come from all walks of life: the children of factory workers at the Central University of Venezuela, where Stalin studies; the sons and daughters of the elite from the Catholic University.

Freddie Guevara(ph), a communications student at Catholic University, has been one of the most prominent leaders. He said the students have been surprised by the national upwelling of opposition to the proposed constitutional changes. The referendum is one that was widely believed would pass, but now pollsters say it may very well be defeated in Sunday's vote.

Mr. FREDDIE GUEVARA (Student): We're preparing for (unintelligible) revolution, right? Because without that, there will be - the political parties here and all the social movements weren't strong enough to go against the government's political machine, right?

FORERO: On Thursday, as the campaign for the no-vote closed with a rally, it was the students who stood out. First there was traditional music - anti-government-related. Then it got decidedly more hip.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: By early afternoon, thousands of students carrying banners and waving flags, their faces painted yellow, gold and red - the country's colors - began marching. Speakers egged on marchers from passing trucks.

Andres Lisa Razo (ph), 18, a business student at the Catholic University, said he felt he was making history.

Mr. ANDRES LISA RAZO (Catholic University): (Through translator) We're strong, very strong. They can't stomp on us. Students have to take the country ahead. We are the future of the country.

FORERO: Just how much of a real impact remains to be seen. Venezuela will know when all the ballots are counted.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas, Venezuela.

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