Caracas, February 13, 2015 (Venezuelanalysis.com) - On February 12th, the anniversary of the start of violent anti-government protests in 2014, opposition student leaders from major universities throughout the country gathered in the Aula Magna theater of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) on Thursday to commemorate the national “Youth Day" as well as unveil their “plan of struggle for 2015."
With the declared objective of "constructing a generational movement on the national level," student leaders announced their demands for the government of Nicolas Maduro, which include "justice for those killed in student protests last year," "freedom for the political prisoners" allegedly held by the government," and an end to "government repression" of protests.
The "Guarimba": One Year Later
During the meeting, opposition student leaders went on to reaffirm their commitment to "peaceful struggle", calling for a moment of silence to commemorate the one year anniversary of the start of opposition protests in 2014, which resulted in the death of 43 people. During this several month long period of opposition street mobilization known as the guarimba, opposition protesters set up barricades throughout the country and engaged in violent attacks on security personnel, demanding the salida, or ouster, of President Nicolas Maduro.
While the opposition claims that the majority of the dead were protesters killed by government security forces, many community media outlets have demonstrated that over half of those killed were bystanders and security personnel. Others still were targeted and killed by militant protestors after being identified as government supporters.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting came to a similar conclusion: “The presence of the protest barricades appears to be the most common cause of deaths: individuals shot while attempting to clear the opposition street blockades, automobile accidents caused by the presence of the barricades, and several incidents attributed to the opposition stringing razor wire across streets near the barricades.”
Despite the opposition student leaders' pledge to continue the "peaceful struggle", their meeting coincided with a fresh round of right-wing student violence in Chacao and San Cristobal.
In San Cristobal, the capital of the southwestern state of Tachira and a hotbed of opposition violence during the guarimba, a group of masked youth participating in right-wing demonstration attacked members of the Bolivarian National Guard, wounding 12.
Meanwhile, in Chacao, a wealthy eastern neighborhood in Caracas, masked protestors proceeded to destroy automobiles parked on the streets.
Sharp Divisions Remain
Outside the Aula Magna, another group of several dozen students assembled near the Faculty of Science, holding a protest and a symbolic mass, likewise honoring those killed during the guarimba. Despite a common thread running through both student concentrations, the appearance of unity was rapidly dispelled by the rather blunt comments of several students outside the Faculty of Science.
"The student movement is very segmented," 27-year old psychology student Fernando Rodriguez told venezuelanalysis.com.
"There are many of us students who do not agree with the position taken by the 'Opposition' [leaders meeting in the Aula Magna], given that they assume an electoral position for future parliamentary elections that according to them is the most effective way to rescue the institutions of the country. However, we don't consider this possible."
Ricardo Millan, 19, also expressed disagreements with the "line of struggle" announced by student leaders in the Aula Magna.
"The line proposed today in the Aula Magna is the line formulated by a sector [of the movement]... that still hasn't been approved by the whole student community."
In contrast to the program laid out by the student leadership, Millan went on to propose "continuous mobilization, not every day, but continuous and creative that seeks to make the street a peaceful method of protest for all of the students and for all of Venezuelan civil society."
Nevertheless, not all present at the protest were so keen to emphasize the "peaceful" character of the student struggle.
"I think we have to radicalize the protests in the street without going back [...]. This is a dictatorship, an oppressive regime here. We can't be here with white flags asking for peace [...]," stated Rodriguez, who is a member of what he terms "the Resistance Movement".
When asked what form these protests might take, he replied, "rebellion...it's the last [option] we have left, it's the end of the tunnel."
Moreover, if there was a general consensus on the need to bring down the democratically elected government of Nicolas Maduro and put an end to the Bolivarian Revolution, students expressed widely varying views on how to achieve this end, mirroring the sharp divisions over strategy among the opposition parties comprising the Roundtable of Democratic Unity (MUD).
For his part, Millan affirmed that student protests would continue until "the government rectifies its public policies and improves the quality [of life] of Venezuelans or the government changes peacefully by way of the resignation of Nicolas Maduro."
In contrast, Luis, 25, a political studies student, opts for a more institutional path, considering a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro as stipulated in the Constitution as the "only exit to this crisis."
On the more radical extreme, Ricardo Rodriguez calls for a "transition" to a "civil-military government" to be realized through the presence of "the people in the streets in order to awaken the national armed forces to take a position on this issue," and usher a new government into power. He added that he "hope[s] it's a short term [struggle], but a lot of that depends on the armed forces."
Autonomy in Doubt
Since the 2007 protests against the government's decision not to renew the contract of the rightwing broadcaster RCTV, the Venezuelan "student movement" has consistently presented itself as "apolitical" and autonomous of political parties. Chavistas have long rejected this image, pointing to student leaders' close ties to rightwing political parties such as Henrique Capriles' Primero Justicia and Leopoldo Lopez's Voluntad Popular.
When asked by venezuelanalysis.com about his relationship to Leopoldo Lopez, Mariana Corina Machado, and Antonio Ledezma, Camacho responded, "We're simply followers.We support them in their struggle, but we personally aren't affiliated with any political parties."
However, Israel Hernandez, youth coordinator of Voluntad Popular for Caracas, made no effort to conceal the expressly political orientation of the student movement, identifying it as only one front in "a struggle of all of society" to "rescue the institutions of the country," a common opposition euphemism for rolling back the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution: "This is a struggle of the students, a struggle of the political parties, a struggle of the trade unions, a struggle of everyone."
While opposition students assembled at the UCV, a contingent of Chavista students marched from Plaza Venezuela to Parque Carabobo to celebrate the Bolivarian Revolution's achievements in education, which include the largest university student enrollment in the history of the country as well as the creation of over 30 new universities.
The students hailed from traditional universities such as the UCV, the UNEG, and the UNEFA, but also present were students from the new universities created under the Revolution, including the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, the National Experimental University of the Arts, and the National Experimental University of Security.
Amid Chavista and opposition student concentrations and fresh right-wing violence, president Nicolas Maduro informed the nation of a foiled coup attempt against his government, known as "Operation Jericho".
According to the president, the plan consisted of a video to be released nationwide featuring masked men in Air Force uniforms announcing the false insurrection of the armed forces against the government. The plot also involved the intended use of a Tucano airplane to attack the presidential palace Miraflores, as well as the Ministry of Defense and the international television station teleSUR.
The coup was preceded with the publication of a document calling for transition in a newspaper with national circulation, further highlighting the role of Venezuela's overwhelmingly private-owned, right-wing media.
President Maduro accused the U.S. government and the Venezuelan far-right of being behind the coup plot, alleging that one of the officers involved possessed a U.S. visa stamped with the date of February 3rd.
Seven Bolivarian Air Force officers have been detained by authorities for their role in the plot.