In response to the Venezuelan governments non-renewal of RCTV's broadcasting license, a concession which expired on May 27th at midnight, a new student movement emerged that has since grabbed headlines domestically and internationally. Thousands took to the streets, some marching peacefully and some squaring off against the police with rocks and bullets, all in the name of "freedom of expression." But it's worth asking: who are "the students," and what do they represent? In recent days, it has become clear that these student mobilizations have been, in fact, largely directed and supported by sectors of the opposition, all in an effort to provoke, in Chávez's own words, a "soft coup" against the revolutionary government. The opposition's strategy vis-á-vis this student movement has consisted of two fundamental elements, both of which could only be executed mediatically. But now, after being revealed and discredited, that strategy is rapidly disintegrating.
Step One: Don't Be Seen
Firstly, opposition parties made a clear decision to stay out of the spotlight, emphasizing the "independent" and "spontaneous" nature of the student protests. Beyond anything else, this gesture proves the degree to which the opposition has been discredited, garnering a reverse Midas touch through years of poor decisionmaking and supporting coups. From the beginning, the government was arguing that opposition politicians were behind the student mobilizations, and so when government-run channel 8 covered one of the early student demonstrations in Plaza Brion in Chacaito, the headline read "opposition demonstration disguised as a student demonstration."
This claim was perhaps justified by the appearance at the demonstration of Leopoldo López, mayor of opposition stronghold Chacao, formerly of far-right party Primero Justicia, which he more recently abandoned in favor of Manuel Rosales' nominally social democratic Un Nuevo Tiempo. Opposition news channel Globovisión countered with the thoroughly unconvincing claim that López, 36 years old and an established politician, was a "youth leader." López himself wouldn't help the situation when at a press conference he "accidentally" called for the students to employ "non-peaceful" tactics (he later claimed that he had meant to call for "non-violent" forms of protest).
That the "student leaders" are tied to the opposition is far from controversial: for example, spokesperson Yon Goicochea is a member of Primero Justicia and the aptly-named Stalin González belonged until recently to the strangest of opposition organizations, Bandera Roja. BR is a nominally Marxist-Leninist group which made the unlikely transition from a respectable guerrilla organization to the attack dogs of the far right, claiming to use the opposition as a vehicle to topple the fake communism of Chávez and institute a true dictatorship of the proletariat. But González recently revealed the extent of his opportunism by joining Rosales and Un Nuevo Tiempo.
But the contours of the opposition's hands-off strategy wouldn't be fully clear until the revelation of a taped phone conversation in which Un Nuevo Tiempo leader Alfonso Marquina spoke of the need to remain in the background, but to pull the strings regardless: "Let's mobilize all the kids We have a strategy as an organization Let's mobilize all the kids, because you know [UCV student leader] Stalin [González] is our vice president here in Caracas Let's mobilize the kids from the Catholic [University] We've decided that the politicians won't intervene, that we'll leave it to the kids in their natural environment. We'll give them support, stick them in trucks If I go out there, they'll say it's the politicians that are calling the kids out"
"The only thing that can save us in this situation is if something extraordinary happens," replies Elías, an advisor to RCTV head Marcel Granier, on the leaked tape. It's comments like this that lead the Vice President of the National Assembly Desiree Santos to argue that the political opposition to Chávez was "looking for a death" among the students, to "repeat the actions of 2002" in which pre-meditated deaths were inserted into a pre-fabricated media strategy to overthrow Chávez.
Santos continues: "We want to denounce today a campaign which intends to convince the country that these student protests are spontaneous, civil, peaceful, and democratic, but behind them there lies an entire conspiratorial apparatus. They are using these kids as cannon fodder…" It was little surprise, then, that when a student was indeed killed (but under circumstances unrelated to the protests), the opposition press immediately ran with the story, only later rectifying their erroneous reports that she had been shot by police. This convenient misreporting even led to the story reaching the pages of Spain's El País.
Despite Marquina's revelations, Globovisión has continued to toe the opposition line that these are apolitical "student demonstrations" and that their objective is not to bring down a government, but merely to support RCTV and "free speech." To make such claims, they continue to systematically obscure the political affiliations of the students, their interactions with opposition political actors, and conveniently ignore the frequently heard chants asserting that "the tyrant will fall."
Step Two: Construct "the Students"
The second element of the opposition's strategy is to present the students as a unified mass. This is not as difficult as it may seem: Venezuela's university system is notoriously exclusionary, and this applies both to private universities like the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) and selective public universities like the Central (UCV). In most of these bodies, which represent the wealthy historical cream of Venezuelan society, the opposition has significant strength, controlling most of the official student unions and political bodies.
But, as Metropolitan Mayor Juan Barreto recently emphasized in a response to the mobilizations, Caracas boasts 200,000 students, whereas these demonstrations have not managed to mobilize more than 5,000. And these mobilizations had been largely concentrated in the wealthy East of Caracas, with no student protests in the sprawling barrios that house half of the city's population. Who are the rest of these students? It is here that we see another piece of the puzzle, and another crucial sector which opposes the policies of the Bolivarian Revolution. As a response to the entrenched elitism and conservatism of the existing Venezuelan university structure, and lacking the political weight to attack the long-cherished tradition of university autonomy head on, Chávez's government opted for a different strategy.
Rather than attempting to change institutions like the UCV, the government has funneled resources into the creation of new, alternative educational institutions like the Bolivarian University (UBV), among others. In all, the government has created 8 new free universities and plans 28 more (11 national, 13 regional, and 4 technological institutes) as a part of the recently-baptized Mission Alma Mater. And this isn't even to mention the vast network of already existing educational missions which stretch from preschool to post-graduate education, and whose participants are currently demanding that they, too, be recognized as "students." As it stands, these new universities reach approximately 1.5 million students, and the educational missions a further 3.8 million, together representing more than 8% of the Venezuelan population, a figure which will only continue to grow.
Recognizing that the students of these new universities are actually "students" would certainly put a damper on the opposition's plans, and so the opposition and international press has insistently maintained the rhetoric by which "the students" of the opposition stand in for students as a whole. It's a classic strategy of substitutionism, and one intimately tied to the purportedly apolitical nature of the protests: since they aren't political, the opposition press is attempting to paint a picture of a unified (i.e. opposition and Chavista) student body standing together in support of press freedom.
A Scripted Performance in the Assembly
The efforts of the students to appear peaceful and democratic ultimately led them down a blind alley. This alley ended in the National Assembly, and revealed with absolute clarity the falseness of the "unity" of the student movement. Perhaps not expecting a positive response, the opposition students demanded first to be received at the Assembly, and later to be given the opportunity to address the national parliament in an emergency session. Unfortunately for them, Assembly President Cilia Flores accepted.
But here's the kicker: the opposition students were invited to participate in a debate with a group of students identifying with the Revolution. While opposition students had continuously emphasized their openness to debate, the structure of the proposed debate threatened to fracture their meticulously-constructed image as the sole representatives of the Venezuelan student population. This was clearly a debate that the opposition students couldn't accept. But on the appointed day and time, they arrived at the Assembly. I was standing outside, when shouts went up about "escualidos [i.e. opposition] disguised as Chavistas." Sure enough, the anti-Chavista students were entering the National Assembly wearing red t-shirts, a color generally reserved for supporters of the government.
At first, it was thought that they had merely donned the red to ensure safe passage through the crowds of Chavista students massed outside, chanting "education first to the children of the worker, education second to the children of the bourgeoisie," and, "the people have spoken, and they are right, now it's Globovisión and Venevisión's turn [to go off the air]." But the red t-shirts were far more than a safety strategy: they were an integral part of a professionally-designed media strategy.
The first speaker to the podium was Douglas Barrios, an opposition student leader and economics student from the private (and notoriously-elite) Metropolitan University (UNIMET). His speech, while well-crafted, contained no arguments, only vague promises of continued struggle for RCTV and, somewhat paradoxically, a process of national reconciliation. At the end of his speech, Barrios said: "I dream of a country in which we can be taken into account without having to wear a uniform." At this point, he and other opposition student leaders in the chamber removed their red t-shirts, revealing a variety of pro-RCTV messages.
The opposition students then began to withdraw from the Assembly, and it was only the entreaties of the Chavista students and Assembly members that convinced them to stay to hear the speech by the first revolutionary student, Andreína Tarazón of the UCV (and representative of the revolutionary M-28 movement). Tarazón began by attacking the opposition students' anti-democratic threats to withdraw from the debate. Comparing their performance to the recent behavior of Condolezza Rice at the summit of the OAS, in which Rice attacked Venezuela before withdrawing to avoid critical responses, Tarazón observed that "they had a march, they demanded freedom of expression, and when it was granted to them they withdraw."
Tarazón continued, demanding that the opposition students clarify their concepts. They seem to be confusing, she argued, "libertad de prensa" (press freedom) and "libertad de empresa" (the freedom of private businesses). Any productive debate would need to set out from clarifying what these opposition students mean by freedom of expression. Tarazón went out of her way, moreover, to attack the racism, sexism, and otherwise exclusionary nature of RCTV, noting that Barrios himself had spoken of the "political exile" Nixon Moreno, a student leader who, among other things, is wanted for attempted rape. "I can't believe," Tarazón added, "that actresses would come on television crying because they will no longer be able to market their bodies as sexual commodities."
After Tarazón's speech, and a brief intervention by Primero Justicia member Yon Goicochea, in which he again asserted the non-political nature of their intervention, the opposition students withdrew from the chamber and the debate, and their exit was carried live on a national cadena, or simultaneous broadcast on all channels. The students, after demanding the right to speak in the Assembly, had withdrawn, refusing to debate with Chavista students.
This being the first time in Venezuelan history that student organizations of any stripe were invited to address the Assembly, their departure rightly shocked both Chavistas and anti-Chavistas: after all, these were the same students who had been professing their democratic credentials and demanding national debate. But the most interesting part of the day was yet to come. As the opposition students were making defiant press declarations before being hustled out the Assembly's back door to avoid the masses of pro-Chavista students gathered out front (who were, at the time, shouting "Cowards! Cowards!" and "Victory, victory, victory of the people!") they failed to notice that they had forgotten something.
Speeches by the scheduled Chavista students continued, with each laying out substantive arguments about the nature the Bolivarian Revolution and its relationship to traditional notions of press freedom. When it came to be his turn to speak, Chavista student leader Héctor Rodríguez of the UCV stepped up to the podium with a sheet of paper that he promptly held up in front of the gathered deputies. It was the last page of the opposition's scripted performance in the Assembly, which laid-out the text of the speech and the exact moment at which Barrios was to remove his red shirt. And the script was signed by ARS Publicity, a company owned by none other than the Globovisión media empire. Together with Globovisión (as well as all other private media outlets), ARS was directly implicated in the planning and execution of the 2002 media coup against the constitutional order.
Let's go over this again, slowly: the students' withdrawal from the National Assembly was scripted. This isn't all that surprising. But that it was scripted by an organization owned by the opposition press is quite revealing. It makes transparent not merely the political nature of the opposition students and the fact that they don't represent the totality of Venezuelan students, but more importantly it reveals the fact that the opposition media has played an active role in planning and structuring this wave of student protests that they themselves have painted as a "spontaneous" rebellion.
In the meantime, Globovisión is busy broadcasting some of RCTV's programs, a tactic which while seemingly benevolent, conveniently assures Globovisión's control of much of RCTV's former audience share. And this alongside advertisements sponsored by opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo which encourage the population to do all they can to get RCTV back on the air: "it's in your hands," so the people are told. But RCTV's hope had been pinned on "the students," an apolitical and unified rebellion that threatened to disrupt Chavista hegemony. Unfortunately for the opposition, the rebellion was more meticulously-crafted media image than hard reality, and this image has begun to crack.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Caracas, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.