Student Leader Says Back Off, Bush

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from Venezuela. For more, click here.

Caracas -- Meet Freddy Guevara. He’s twenty-one years old, studies Social Communications at the Catholic University of Venezuela, talks fast, and wearsQuicksilver gear. He’s also one of the handful of young leaders to rally 40,000 students across the country to protest the Venezuelan government’s 2007 constitutional referendum.

Entering politics hasn’t been easy for Freddy. He’s been shot by water cannons and tear-gassed ad nauseum. Last week his mother received yet another anonymous phone call telling her that her son will die in a mysterious car crash. And on Venezolana de Televisión, the host of “La Hojilla” (“The Blade”), which President Hugo Chavez calls his favorite TV show, accused Freddy of conspiring with America’s Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the president.

Freddy says he’s never set foot in the U.S. and that his passport proves it. But the host of the show, Mario Silva, broadcast a Google Earth map showing Freddy’s “suspicious” travel itinerary last year to a daily audience in the tens of thousands. Freddy went to Brussels, where he addressed members of the European Union, then to Ottawa where he met his older sister. Then he flew home to Caracas from Toronto.

“‘Why did Freddy go to Toronto?’” host Mario asked. “‘Because Toronto is near Washington DC, and Washington is near the CIA…where this boy is trained!’” Freddy recounts this episode, grinning.

He and his fellow student leaders try to laugh off these public accusations. One of their sardonic street chants goes:

“Tenemos que marchar, tenemos que marchar. Si no marchamos, la CIA no nos pagará!”
“We have to march. We have to march. If we don’t march, the CIA won't pay us!"

Freddy is convinced young Chavez supporters “don’t eat” their leader’s accusations, either (a recent one claims that the U.S. unleashed dengue fever in the country.) “I asked one pro-government student leader, Robert Cerra, ‘Do you really think I’m from the CIA?’” Freddy says. Robert responded, “‘Of course not, but maybe you don’t know you're being manipulated.’” But Freddy says that even Robert smiled knowingly through his words.

Spouting anti-American, anti-Imperialist rhetoric is just part of a big public performance, Freddy says. But that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.

“It is a trap. Chavez wants to make this into an ideological fight. Venezuela against the imperialists, right against left, rich against poor…[Even though] the real battle is between authoritarianism and democracy.”

“I am on the left,” Freddy insists. He supports opposition candidate Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla. And Freddy’s parents, who actively protested the Vietnam War and worked in the oil industry, dub themselves “hippies.”

Freddy is openly critical of the U.S., too. “Two parties have kidnapped the whole democratic system there,” he says. He cites Scandinavian countries as model democracies.

His disenchantment with divisive politics, and in turn the U.S., began when he was just fourteen. Armed conflict broke out between opposition groups within Venezuela and the government in 2001. Freddy saw a man get shot in the head by a rooftop sniper. He doesn’t know which side the man was on.

Both opposition and government killed recklessly, he says. “I grew up -- my generation grew up -- seeing this violence from both sideshearing lies from both sides.” He says that this made him aware from a young age that “the world is not black and white.” Change must take place internally, within the nation, and within each individual.

His studies at the Catholic University, where students chat on cut lawns and dine at Subway andWendy’s, further molded this view. He quotes theorist John Dewey who says democracy isn’t ever a perfect system – but that it is forever a perfectable one. Watching the Iraq War unfold in 2003 reinforced Freddy’s view that democracy isn’t an end in itself, and that it cannot be exported by force. “Foreign countries cannot save us,” he says. “The U.S. cannot save us….Thinking like that will only divide us further.”

In the struggle to overcome the dichotomies of good-vs-evil, right-vs-left, us-vs-them, he says, the black-vs-white rhetoric of the Bush administration in the White House doesn’t help him. But international media attention does.

It will take a lot to change Venezuela. “Chavez is looking for an enemy, no matter what.” Even if the U.S. "stops its rhetoric" or removes its embassy and ignores this southern neighbor, “Chavez will just find another excuse to divide us,” Freddy says. “We are fighting that division.”

VenezuelaAmar Bakshi