Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is Greg Craig driving US Latin America policy?

The Wall Street Journal

Is Greg Craig driving U.S. Latin America policy?


Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya returned to his country on Friday, traveling by SUV from Nicaragua to a small border town. It was his first time back in Honduras since he was arrested and deported on June 28 for violating the constitution.

Mr. Zelaya appeared somewhat disappointed that his theatrical re-entry did not provoke a shoot-out. A few hours later he jumped back into Nicaragua where Sandinista President Daniel Ortega has given him shelter.

If Mr. Zelaya keeps this up, the crisis could drag on. But however the standoff is resolved, it is likely to be remembered as a defining moment for U.S. Latin America policy under Barack Obama.

Mr. Zelaya had means, motive and opportunity to destroy the country’s democratic institutions and was moving to do so. If he succeeded, he could have consolidated power in the manner of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and turned the country into a police state. Mr. Obama’s insistence that Mr. Zelaya be restored to power has strengthened the image of an arrogant and patronizing Uncle Sam disconnected from the region’s reality.

Hondurans might be more amenable to an Obama democracy lecture if the U.S. showed any interest in standing up to Mr. Chávez and his antidemocratic allies or any grasp of the dangers they present. Instead, since taking office in January the American president has embraced the region’s bad actors only to be subsequently embarrassed by revelations that his new “friends” are actually enemies of liberty and peace.

The weirdness started with the April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, when Mr. Obama practically high-fived Mr. Chávez like they were long lost soul mates. The administration’s spin was that tension in the region was caused by George W. Bush. The charming Mr. Obama would change all that, and from there U.S. influence would rise again. Mr. Chávez didn’t get the memo. On July 19, the Washington Post reported that a new Government Accountability Office report finds “that corruption at high levels of President Hugo Chavez’s government, and state aid to Colombia’s drug-trafficking guerrillas, have made Venezuela a major launching pad for cocaine bound for the United States and Europe.” Now Mr. Chávez says he will overthrow the Honduran government.
Mr. Obama called Ecuador’s Rafael Correa in early June to “congratulate” him on his recent re-election, and according to a White House spokesman, “express his desire to deepen our bilateral relationship and to maintain an ongoing dialogue that can ensure a productive relationship based on mutual respect.” This made Mr. Obama look uninformed again since Mr. Correa’s disrespect for U.S. interests is legendary.
On June 22, I reported in this column that Colombian military intelligence had evidence the Correa government is a supporter of the Colombian rebel group FARC. A furious Mr. Correa jumped in front of television cameras to issue a threat to sue The Wall Street Journal. “We are fed up with their lies,” he warned.

The Americas in the News
Get the latest information in Spanish from The Wall Street Journal’s Americas page.

He couldn’t know that the Associated Press would release a video days later of a rebel reading a letter from the FARC’s deceased leader about “compromising” documents that talk of the FARC’s financial support for Mr. Correa’s 2006 presidential campaign and “agreements” with Correa envoys. Reporting on the news, the Spanish daily El Pais wrote that “various emails from the computers of [FARC honcho] Raúl Reyes tell about the delivery of $100,000 to the Correa campaign team. What is new is that a high-ranking leader of the guerrillas verbally acknowledges the contribution.” Mr. Correa denies FARC connections and says it is a “setup.” No word yet on whether he plans to sue all the other newspapers that subsequently reported the story.

Having established that making nice with the region’s troublemakers is a priority, Mr. Obama now wants Mr. Zelaya—who was endorsed by the FARC last week—reinstated. If Honduras does not comply, the U.S. is threatening to freeze assets and revoke the visas of interim government officials.

Some Washington watchers figure this bizarre stance is due to the fact that Mr. Obama is relying heavily on White House Counsel Gregory Craig for advice on Latin America.

Mr. Craig was the lawyer for Fidel Castro—er, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the father of Elian Gonzalez—during Bill Clinton’s 2000 repatriation to Cuba of the seven-year-old. During the presidential campaign when Mr. Craig was advising Mr. Obama, the far-left Council on Hemispheric Affairs endorsed Mr. Craig as “the right man to revive deeply flawed U.S.-Latin America relations.” In other words, to pull policy left.

There is plenty of speculation that Mr. Obama is making policy off of Mr. Craig’s “expertise.” It is not too much to believe. Indeed, if all policy is now being run out of the White House, as many observers contend, then the views of the White House counsel may explain a lot.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Human Rights Beyond Ideology and Mr. Morales false indegenous icon

"Some voices at the Oslo meeting are seldom heard in the West. Victor Hugo Cardenas of Bolivia prides himself on his indigenous background but is an implacable opponent of leftist President Evo Morales, a protégé of Hugo Chavez. Mr. Cardenas, a former vice president of Bolivia, called Mr. Morales a "false indigenous icon" who was deploying "shock troops" to silence critics. Indeed, he said that some of Mr. Morales's thugs had recently attacked his house and beaten members of his family. "But you will hear little of this from our media, much of which is bought by the Venezuelan money of Hugo Chavez," he thundered. "
The wall street journal
Human Rights Beyond Ideology


Twenty years ago, as Soviet communism was collapsing and new democracies were springing up everywhere, there were bright hopes for the spread of human rights. But while this year marks the anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling, yesterday was also the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in China, a reminder of just how unyielding authoritarian governments can be.

Tiananmen was very much on the minds of the 200 human-rights activists who gathered in this tidy capital city where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year. But the Oslo Freedom Forum, organized by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, was unlike any human-rights conference I've ever attended. As at other such gatherings, racism and gender discrimination were on the minds of plenty of participants. But there was no desire to blame such problems on the U.S. or other Western nations. The emphasis was on promoting basic rights in all nations at all times.

"It's pretty simple," says Thor Halvorssen, a human-rights activist and the conference's 33-year-old founder. "We all should want freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from torture, freedom to travel, due process and freedom to keep what belongs to you." Unfortunately, he explains, "the human-rights establishment at the United Nations is limited to pretty words because so many member countries kill or imprison or torture their opponents."

Indeed, the U.N. Human Rights Conference held in Geneva last month was a disgrace, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denouncing Israel as a "racist regime" and saying that "Zionism" was dominating the media and financial systems of the West. The U.S. didn't send a delegation to Geneva, and a number of the European representatives walked out during Mr. Ahmadinejad's rant.

The Oslo Freedom Forum, by contrast, was a serious gathering of grown-ups. Even Oslo's leftist newspaper Klassekampen (Class Struggle) overcame its initial skepticism, declaring the forum "an impressive assembly of people."

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Yelena Bonner, the widow of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, couldn't attend due to ill health, but all sent videotaped statements. Ms. Bonner challenged delegates to combat the "anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment growing throughout Europe" since she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize here on behalf of her husband in 1975. Vladimir Bukovsky, a scientist who was tortured by the KGB for years, warned that many of Russia's old oppressors were "safely in power again" in new guises.

The conference also brought together activists from far-flung corners of the world. Palden Gyatso, a diminutive Tibetan monk, told horrifying tales of being imprisoned for 33 years and being tortured by Chinese captors who wedged electric batons into his mouth and destroyed all of his teeth. After his talk, he was embraced by Harry Wu, a survivor of 19 years in China's network of labor camps, which still contain untold numbers of prisoners.

Although quiet and reserved, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane kept his audience riveted as he told of how he'd been raised in an elite Mauritanian family that kept slaves even after the practice was officially abolished in his land in 1981. While living in Paris as an adult, he became infuriated at the world's indifference to slavery and teamed up with a former slave from Mauritania to provide legal help to escapees and also conduct covert rescue operations of those still in bondage. Mr. Ethmane's talk was followed by presentations from two powerful speakers from Kurdistan and Uzbekistan, both women who had served time for democratic activism.

Some voices at the Oslo meeting are seldom heard in the West. Victor Hugo Cardenas of Bolivia prides himself on his indigenous background but is an implacable opponent of leftist President Evo Morales, a protégé of Hugo Chavez. Mr. Cardenas, a former vice president of Bolivia, called Mr. Morales a "false indigenous icon" who was deploying "shock troops" to silence critics. Indeed, he said that some of Mr. Morales's thugs had recently attacked his house and beaten members of his family. "But you will hear little of this from our media, much of which is bought by the Venezuelan money of Hugo Chavez," he thundered.

The Norwegian hosts seem keen on repeating the event next year. The forum certainly attracted the right enemies. During the conference, Norwegian papers reported that the Cuban Embassy had emailed a lengthy denunciation of the forum, accusing Mr. Halvorssen and former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares of being CIA agents. The embassy also wrote that Mr. Valladares was a "terrorist," and it accused the Human Rights Foundation's Bolivian representative of "providing the bulk of the funds for the terrorist gang" that had supposedly plotted to assassinate President Morales.

Mr. Halvorssen expressed both amusement and exasperation at the charges. "They accuse me of working for the CIA in countries I've never visited," he told me. "As for Ambassador Valladares, he was Amnesty International's first prisoner of conscience from Cuba. Amnesty doesn't usually protect CIA agents."

Mr. Fund is a columnist for

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W13

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The FARC's foreign friends - Mary O'grady

FARC & Chavez did everything possible to make look bad president Uribe, as the computer is showing now......
vdebate reporter

In other words, there is no peace agenda. Only plans for a circus designed to undermine Colombia's democracy. The rest of the region's governments ought to worry about who is next.
Mary O'grady

The FARC's Foreign Friends
by Mary O'grady
Some 11,000 text documents have been retrieved from the computers seized by the Colombian government after a bombing raid on a guerrilla camp in March. That raid killed rebel leader Raúl Reyes.Yet combing through only a portion of the material, which I did recently, is enough to see that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the FARC – is held together by two common threads.

First is the globalization of the armed struggle.
The FARC's allies and suppliers come from places as far flung as Australia, China, Russia, the Middle East and all parts of Latin America. Some are ideological comrades – both inside governments and operating as illegal cells; others are members of organized crime networks. All are crucial actors in the FARC's bloodthirsty search for power.
The second common thread is the propaganda war.
FARC rebels not only assume that they can manipulate international opinion by claiming a "humanitarian" agenda. They count on it. All this is facilitated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The Colombian military has been running up the score against the FARC of late and rebel operations are close to falling apart, as Journal reporter José de Cordoba wrote last week. But the documents show that aid from Mr. Chávez is prolonging the war by keeping FARC hopes alive.
The Venezuelan president has been creative in thinking about how he can help the rebels. The documents show that he has offered $250 million to $300 million but that's not all. In a February memo to the FARC high command, two rebel leaders who had recently met with Mr. Chávez describe proposed money-making schemes. "He offered us the possibility of a business in which we would receive a quota of oil to sell outside the country, which would leave us with a juicy profit."
There was also an offer of Venezuelan state contracts. In January 2007, the rebels penned a memo explaining that a Venezuelan general told them that arms shipments from abroad could be brought in through the Venezuelan port of Maracaibo.
By September, the shipments were being lined up. "Yesterday I received two Australian arms suppliers," one rebel wrote to the high command, "thanks to a contact made through Ramiro [a Salvadoran.]" The Aussies "offer very good prices on all we need."
The list includes 50-caliber machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and missiles. "All of these materials are made in Russia and China," he wrote, and the shipment would take a month or so "to arrive in Venezuela."
Just in case all this military hardware doesn't maim and murder enough civilians to produce a surrender by the Colombian government, Mr. Chávez and the FARC also have been collaborating on Plan B: an effort to acquire legitimacy in the eyes of the international community by branding Colombian President Álvaro Uribe as heartless and unreasonable.
That was supposed to be a slam dunk after Mr. Chávez last year won the role of "mediator" in the effort to free some FARC hostages, including the French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt. But a series of PR faux-pas, culminating in a fruitless trip to see French President Nicolas Sarkozy, destroyed any credibility he may briefly have enjoyed as a peacemaker.
Shortly thereafter, rebel leaders wrote a memo outlining how they planned to position themselves as humanitarians ready to swap hostages for rebel prisoners "in contrast to the stubborn intransigence of Mr. Uribe."
Among their demands would be exclusion from the international terrorist list and access to diplomatic missions. "If [Mr. Uribe] rejects it, as he surely will," they wrote, "we lose nothing and instead he will remain isolated and under international pressure." That plan, too, went nowhere.
On Feb. 8 of this year, the rebels wrote that Mr. Chávez had a new idea: to create an international group – consisting of Cuba, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico and Nicaragua – similar to the Contadora Group. Contadora, which was formed in the 1980s allegedly to find a peaceful solution to the Central American wars, in fact provided political cover to the region's Marxists.
According to the rebels, Mr. Chávez said that if Mr. Uribe wants to improve bilateral relations, he would have to accept it and "asks that we bring Ingrid to the inaugural." In preparation for the swap, the group would set up a "humanitarian camp" with "the presence of the press, international delegates and the FARC." In other words, there is no peace agenda.
Only plans for a circus designed to undermine Colombia's democracy. The rest of the region's governments ought to worry about who is next.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Chavez aided Colombia Rebels, Captured Computer Files Show

Chavez Aided Colombia Rebels, Captured Computer Files Show
(Copyright (c) 2008, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
BOGOTA, Colombia -- A cache of controversial computer files closely tying Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez to communist rebels seeking to topple Colombia's government appear to be authentic, U.S. intelligence officials say.
The trove -- found on a dead guerrilla leader's laptops during a military raid in March -- is likely to ratchet up pressure for the U.S. to impose sanctions on one of its most important oil suppliers.
The files that have been made public so far have largely confirmed Mr. Chavez's well-known sympathy for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But a review by The Wall Street Journal of more than 100 new files from the computers suggests that Venezuela has broader and deeper ties to the FARC than previously known.
These documents indicate Venezuela appears to be making concrete offers to help arm the rebels, possibly with rocket-propelled grenades and ground-to-air missiles. The files suggest that Venezuela offered the FARC the use of one of its ports to receive arms shipments, and that Venezuela raised the prospect of drawing up a joint security plan with the FARC and sought basic training in guerrilla-warfare techniques.
"There is complete agreement in the intelligence community that these documents are what they purport to be," a senior U.S. official said. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been sharing its assessments with the White House, this official said.
Washington's stance is likely to hurt Venezuela's already deeply strained relationship with the U.S., its biggest trade partner. It could also add pressure for the U.S. to declare Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism, alongside Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria, and impose sanctions.
Mr. Chavez has repeatedly said the files were faked by Colombia. "We don't recognize the validity of any of these documents," Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the U.S., said in a Wednesday interview. "They are false, and an attempt to discredit the Venezuelan government."
Interpol, the international police organization, has yet to give its view on the files' legitimacy. Colombia asked Interpol to perform an independent forensic analysis, and next week, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble is scheduled to travel to Colombia to present the findings.
Mr. Noble declined to comment on Interpol's conclusions. He said Interpol hasn't yet briefed foreign governments on its findings. "Anyone who has told you that Interpol has informed him about our findings has given you false information," he said.
The computer files hint at the depth of Mr. Chavez's antipathy towards the U.S., which he often describes as an "empire" oppressing Latin America. According to one document, Venezuela's interior minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, last November asked the FARC to train Venezuela's military in nuts-and-bolts guerrilla tactics -- including "operational tactics, explosives, . . . jungle camps, ambushes, logistics, mobility" -- so that soldiers would be prepared to fight a guerrilla war if the U.S. were to invade Venezuela.
The documents are among more than 10,000 files that Colombian intelligence services say came from three computers belonging to Raul Reyes, the FARC's former second-in-command. Mr. Reyes was killed in March when Colombia's military staged a contentious cross-border raid into Ecuador, where he was camped.
The FARC itself has suggested the files are fake. A FARC statement published on the Web site of Venezuela's Information Ministry ridiculed Colombia's claims about the computer files, saying computers couldn't have survived the Colombian army attack "even if they had been bullet-proof."
A senior staffer in the U.S. Senate, who had been briefed on the contents of the files, cautioned that Mr. Chavez is known for his bombast, and that while tantalizing, the information in the files would need careful corroboration before action is taken against Venezuela. "We need to see proof of what is mentioned in the reports," the staffer said.
There have been some recent indications that the computers contain accurate information. Police in Costa Rica staged a successful raid on a home belonging to alleged FARC sympathizers, and recovered $480,000 in cash, guided by information from the documents suggesting the money would be located there.
In addition, Ecuador's interior minister confirmed that he had met with Mr. Reyes, after an email describing the previously secret meeting was found on the laptops and made public by Colombia.
The FARC, which has been fighting for control of Colombia for nearly a half-century, funds itself mostly through drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. The U.S. considers it to be one of the world's main cocaine suppliers.
The FARC is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, Colombia and the European Union. For the U.S., any group that deliberately attacks civilians for political reasons merits such a designation. With troop strength estimated at around 9,000 fighters, that would make the FARC Latin America's oldest and largest such group.
However, Colombia's neighbors, including Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil, don't consider the FARC to be a terrorist organization. Indeed, Mr. Chavez has hailed the group as brother revolutionaries. He has thrown Venezuela's weight behind an effort to remove the FARC from terrorist lists and instead grant the group diplomatic recognition as a "belligerent army."
According to the senior U.S. intelligence official, the Colombian government delivered "thousands" of the controversial documents to Washington in March. Since then, American technical experts have studied them for signs of forgery and to assess whether they correspond to the methods the FARC typically uses to communicate.
"There are no indications whatsoever that they've been fabricated by the Colombians," the official said.
The official said that the most troubling information in the files suggested the FARC's willingness to purchase virtually any type of weapon from any source. The official said Mr. Chavez's government has increasingly been willing to help the FARC reach international buyers. The official cited the FARC's particular desire to acquire surface-to-air missiles, although he said there weren't any signs of the guerrilla movement succeeding.
During a speech Wednesday on Latin American relations, President Bush brought up the FARC situation. "Colombia faces a hostile and anti-American neighbor in Venezuela, where the regime has forged an alliance with Cuba, collaborated with FARC terrorists, and provided sanctuary to FARC units."
According to a study last week from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sanctions against Venezuela could backfire if done poorly. The U.S. would need to rally significant regional support or risk that sanctions become "counterproductive" by stirring nationalist or anti-U.S. sentiments.
Venezuela has mounted a vigorous diplomatic offensive to block any move by the U.S. to declare the nation a terrorism sponsor. Such a declaration would prompt U.S. economic sanctions, disrupt $50 billion in annual bilateral trade and jolt the already jittery global oil market, since Venezuela is a major oil producer.
In a speech last month in New York, Mr. Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador, warned the U.S. would pay a heavy economic price if it made any such move. "There will be very grave economic consequences," Mr. Alvarez said, adding that some 230,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs depend on U.S. exports to Venezuela, which in turn sends some 1.58 million barrels of oil daily to the U.S.
The documents suggest Mr. Chavez is personally involved in helping the guerrillas. In a September 2007 message to the FARC's ruling body, a commander wrote: "Chavez is studying our documents and has said that just like Fidel [Castro] has decided to delegate his other responsibilities to concentrate on the Venezuelan situation, he [Chavez] is ready to do the same to dedicate more time to Colombia."
Colombia has long accused Venezuela of letting the FARC operate on its side of the border, allegations the Venezuelans have denied. But according to one 2005 email, from Jorge Briceno (known as Mono Jojoy, a top FARC military commander), the rebels at that time had some 370 guerrillas and urban sympathizers operating inside Venezuela.
One email, apparently sent by a FARC commander known as "Timochenko" to the guerrillas' ruling body in March 2007, describes meetings with Venezuelan naval-intelligence officers who offer the FARC assistance in getting "rockets." The Venezuelans also offer to help a FARC guerrilla travel to the Middle East to learn how to use the rockets.
Colombian military analysts believe the reference is to shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, a weapon that the guerrillas desperately need if they hope to blunt Colombia's recent gains. "The FARC realizes that its military problem is air power," says Gen. Oscar Naranjo, who heads the country's national police.
In another email dated early 2007, FARC commander Ivan Marquez describes meetings with the Venezuelan military's intelligence chief, Gen. Hugo Carvajal, and another Venezuelan officer to talk about "finances, arms and border policy." Mr. Marquez relates that the Venezuelans will provide the guerrillas some 20 "very powerful bazookas," which Colombian military officials believe is a reference to rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
An officer reached at Gen. Carvajal's office said the general was the only person authorized to comment and he couldn't be reached because he was traveling.
At the meeting with Gen. Carvajal, another Venezuelan general is described as offering the port of Maracaibo to facilitate arms shipments to the guerrillas. The general suggests piggybacking on shipments from Russia -- from which Venezuela itself is buying everything from Kalashnikovs to jet fighters -- to "include some containers destined to the FARC" with various arms for the guerrillas' own use.
A spokesman at the Russian embassy in Washington declined to comment.
The proposals to obtain weaponry are part of a broad program of economic and political support for the FARC from Mr. Chavez's government, some of which was detailed in emails that were made public in the days just after the cross-border military raid that yielded the computer files.
Another email describes a November meeting between two FARC commanders and Mr. Chavez. The commanders, Ricardo Granda and Ivan Marquez, report back in the email that Mr. Chavez gave orders to create "rest areas" and hospital zones for the guerrillas to use on the Venezuelan side of the border.
Many documents talk about how to fit generous offers of Venezuelan aid to the FARC's long-term "strategic plan" of taking power in Colombia. In one document dated January 2007, one top FARC commander speaks of a "loan" for $250 million to buy arms which the FARC will pay back once it has reached power. "Don't think of it as a loan, think of it as solidarity," says Mr. Rodriguez Chacin, the interior minister, in another document.
Mr. Rodriguez Chacin's press office didn't respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, he dismissed Colombian newspaper reports that Interpol had confirmed that the computer documents were authentic, according to an Interior Ministry press release. "Imagine somebody taking [evidence] home and manipulating it as he wants, and afterwards presenting it," he said. "What court in the world will accept that evidence?"
While the documents indicate that the FARC is appreciative of Venezuela's efforts, privately the guerrillas occasionally make fun of the Venezuelans' work habits. "It hasn't been easy for us to adapt to the way of being of the Venezuelans," complains Mr. Reyes in one document. "It doesn't seem as if they are conscious of their boring lack of formality." Mr. Chavez "always leaves things until the last moment."

David Gauthier-Villars in Paris and David Crawford in Berlin contributed to this article.

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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Students Continue Protest in Venezuela

A Bid to Ease Chavez's Power Grip
Students Continue Protests in Venezuela
President Threatens Violence
By Jose de Cordoba

The Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones
Caracas, Venezuela -- A student movement that has swept across Venezuela is posing a strong challenge to President Hugo Chavez's drive to extinguishindependent power centers in the universities and media.
Although Mr. Chavez continues to have a firm grip on the government, the student protests have demonstrated a broad uneasiness with his efforts todominate Venezuelan society.

Mr. Chavez's approval ratings have fallen and suspicion of his intentions has grown among Venezuelans. He also hasn't responded to the protests in a way that resonates with the public, many of whom view the students with sympathy. Instead, he has threatened to use violence to put down the demonstrations. InVenezuela, as in most Latin American countries, students have played an outsized political role, including in the country's transition to democracy in 1958.

Since he was first elected president in 1998, Mr. Chavez has brought to heel a number of once independent power centers in Venezuela - notably the oil industry, judiciary, military and legislature. The university system and a quickly diminishing sector of the Venezuelan media are among the few important institutions outside the ambit of his control.
The student protests were sparked by the closure in late May of an opposition television station, Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV. The students seek toconvince Mr. Chavez to give up plans to remake Venezuela's educational system.The closure of RCTV appeared to convince the students that Mr. Chavez meant business when he announced a plan to create a "revolution within the university." Students and professors fear that would mean an end to university autonomy and an imposition of Cuban-style socialist ideology.

"Mediocrity is what they want," says Carolina Rondon, who studies physical therapy in Caracas at the Central University of Venezuela, the country's largest university, as she prepared to join tens of thousands of other students on a protest march Wednesday. "We are marching to save our future." On the side of a building, a huge banner had just one word: "Freedom."

Student organizers have been careful to portray their movement not as antiChavez, but as pro-freedom of expression, and have kept their distance from the largely discredited leaders of Mr. Chavez's political opposition. Shunning violent confrontation, students have adapted tactics such as handing grim-faced riot police red carnations. One day this week, groups of students with their mouths taped shut rode the city's subways holding signs that said "Peace," and "Tolerance."

To help keep their plans secret from police and the National Guard, which hastried to keep students bottled up at different universities, student organizers use cellphone text messaging to spread the news on future protests.

The number of Venezuelans who have a favorable opinion of the president has fallen 10 percentage points to 39% since November, according to Hinterlaces, a Caracas pollster. Skyrocketing crime, inflation and shortages of basic food shave contributed to Mr. Chavez's fall in popularity since he won re-election by a landslide in December.
In the past, Mr. Chavez, who has spent billions of dollars on social-welfare programs aimed at the poor, has deftly manipulated Venezuela's sharp class divisions to portray his foes as U.S. manipulated "oligarchs."

That tactic hasn't worked this time, as students come from all walks of life and many are poor or working class. "You see all kinds of students here. There are no 'oligarchs,'" says Pamela Lora, a 20-year-old public-health student at UCV. "This has nothing to do with President Bush or with any 'empire,'" she scoffs.

The Chavez government has wavered in its response. After using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up student demonstrations last week, police have moderated their approach. On Wednesday, students were able to deliver their complaints personally to Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, a Chavez hard-liner.

The state television network, which usually ignores anti-Chavez protests, broadcast the encounter. Mr. Rodriguez listened as student leader Eduardo Torres lectured him: "We are not delinquents, we are democrats and will stay on the streets."

The following day, student representatives delivered a message to Congress, which consists entirely of Chavez supporters because the opposition didn'tcontest the last legislative election.

Even some Chavez allies in the legislature are expressing dissatisfaction with the president's efforts to consolidate power.

But Mr. Chavez hasn't for sworn threats in dealing with the students, who he has accused of being the dupes of a U.S. plot to destabilize his government. At an hours-long press conference Wednesday, Mr. Chavez threatened to lead "the people" in about of "Jacobin revolutionary violence" against students.

Despite his slide in popularity, Mr. Chavez maintains a strong grip on power which the students will have a hard time loosening. Since 1998, Mr. Chavez has survived a short-lived coup and a two-month strike in the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, known as PDVSA. Along the way, he has purged the army and has used PDVSA as a piggy bank to fund his ambitious social-welfare program.

Mr. Chavez also controls the country's electoral system, judiciary and legislature.
Since he was re-elected in December, Mr. Chavez has moved against privatefirms, nationalizing Venezuela's main telephone company and power company whilewresting control of billion-dollar projects from foreign oil firms.

The student protests began after Mr. Chavez refused to renew the broadcastlicense of RCTV, arguing that the outlet had tried to destabilize his government, been disrespectful of authority and endangered children's morals by showing spicy programming. A Hinterlaces poll showed about 80% of Venezuelans opposed the closure, which also unleashed a barrage of international and domestic criticism. Since then, Mr. Chavez threatened to cancel the license of Globovision, the sole remaining broadcaster that is critical of his rule.

Now, neither Mr. Chavez nor the students seems certain what to do next. Venezuela is scheduled to host teams from the hemisphere for the Copa America soccer tournament this month and would want to avoid scenes of police clashing with students broadcast across Latin America. He may be hoping that protests will peter out as students face final exams and leave on summer vacation.

The students aren't sure how far to take their protests either. This week, at daily morning planning meetings in every university in Caracas, students debated how to balance academic concerns and political action. "I'm prepared to lose a year of my career and two months of classes in exchange for the future we will build," said one ponytailed student delegate at an assembly at Andres Bello Catholic University this week, to a thunderous round of applause.

Peter Millard contributed to this article.

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