Wanna Beat Hugo Chavez?

Then learn how to fight Mike Tyson.

People demonstrate during the closing rally against the constitutional amendments promoted by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez
People rally against the constitutional amendments promoted by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, in Caracas, on Nov. 29, 2007.

Pedro Rey/AFP/Getty Images.

This article is excerpted from William J. Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.

In October, Henrique Capriles, the leader of the Venezuelan opposition, will square off against President Hugo Chavez at the polls. The opposition knows it has its work cut out for it. Despite a dismal economy and skyrocketing crime, Chavez will pull out all the stops to win, as he always does. But there is one time that Chavez lost at the ballot box. It was a defeat handed to him in large part because of the creativity, energy, and ingenuity of the Venezuelan student movement and a handful of young people who lead them. If today’s Venezuela political opposition wants to succeed, they should learn from the youth. 

In late 2006, Hugo Chavez couldn’t lose. Venezuela’s charismatic president was at the peak of his power. That December, he was re-elected in a landslide victory, trouncing the opposition candidate by 26 percent. A year earlier he had secured complete control of the National Assembly when the same political opposition boycotted the parliamentary election. His coffers were overflowing. Oil prices were already at more than $60 a barrel—up more than three and half times from what they were when he came to power—and showed no signs of slowing down. The opposition’s election defeat was just the most recent drubbing in a string of losses going back to 1998. On election night, when Chavez walked out onto the balcony of the presidential palace and looked out over Venezuela, there was virtually no opponent left to conquer. If he was going to have a fight, Chavez was going to have to look for enemies. Which might explain why his next target was a TV station.

Radio Caracas Televisión, or as it was best known, RCTV, had been broadcasting for 53 years. It was the oldest television station in Venezuela, and the channel occupied first place in the ratings, with 40 percent of the viewing public. Although almost all of its programming was entertainment shows—it was home to some of Venezuela’s most beloved Latin soap operas—the editorial line in its news coverage took a clearly critical view of Chavez. So, a few weeks after winning his new term in office, Chavez, dressed in military fatigues, announced that he would not be renewing the government concession that allowed RCTV to operate. Come May 28, 2007, when its contract would lapse, RCTV would go off the air. Most Venezuelans, even the president’s own supporters, were stunned. RCTV was an institution, the TV channel everyone had grown up watching. Polls showed that 65 to 80 percent of the public was against its closure. Chavez was undaunted.

Douglas Barrios was a fourth-year student of economics at Metropolitan University at the time. He was 20 years old, so, like most of his classmates, he was part of the first generation of young Venezuelans to come of age under Chavez. Barrios was in sixth grade when Chavez was first elected, so he didn’t really remember what it was like to have anyone other than Hugo Chavez as president. But he does remember sitting at home on the night of May 27, 2007. In the months leading up to that day, Barrios and many of his friends in school had watched in disbelief as no one came forward to organize opposition to the president’s decree. “When I try to explain it to people, I say it’s like they shut down NBC, ABC, and CBS at the same time,” says Barrios. And that night, precisely at midnight, RCTV went dark. The final image people saw was of the station’s journalists, news anchors, actors, and employees singing the national anthem, many of them crying, as they waved goodbye. “You were sitting in front of your TV, probably the lights were off, and you saw this TV station go to static,” recalls Barrios. “It just represented how choice can go away, how your options can go away, how something that’s very very established can just go to static.”

Geraldine Alvarez, a student at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, remembers that night the same way. She was a fourth-year student, studying advertising and journalism. Growing up, she had never been particularly interested in politics. But the day before the RCTV closure, her classmates had elected her to the University Council. She had always assumed becoming active in student government would mean little more than organizing academic debates. She certainly didn’t see it as a pathway into politics. That all changed on May 28. “It was the first time I felt the government was coming into my house and telling me not to do something,” says Alvarez. “That was the reason why so many people felt so shocked. The next day we closed the university.”

At first, the reaction was spontaneous. Venezuelan student leaders from that time all say there was no carefully choreographed plan. They hadn’t thought much beyond the next few hours. Certainly no one thought their actions were about to give birth to a movement. But a small group of students from the five major universities across Caracas had decided that May 28, 2008, couldn’t be just another day. On that morning students, numbering in the hundreds, got up early and stood out in front of their various universities to protest what everyone had seen on television the night before. They were angry. “We just said tomorrow can’t be a normal day,” says Barrios. “Because if we allow this to be normal, if we allow ourselves to accept this as normal, then we will be losing a bit of ourselves.”

As it happens, Caracas’ five major universities occupy strategic positions around the city. Four of the universities are located at the entrances to Caracas; the fifth is smack in the middle of the city. So if even a relatively small number of people were to blockade the roads in front of these universities, it would shut down the city. And that is precisely what these students did.

Not surprisingly, the student protesters were quickly met with resistance. The government dispatched police and National Guard units to break up the blockades. Students at the Metropolitan University were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets. They had no choice but to retreat back into their university. When they tried to return to the street, they were beaten back again. Rather than accept the stalemate, student leaders decided to regroup. They would leave their schools and start to amass at Plaza Brión. The plaza was in a safer part of town, it had a metro stop, and the authorities weren’t expecting them there. And that was when their numbers began to grow.

When other students, friends, and family heard about the clashes in front of the universities, many decided to show their solidarity. Whereas in the morning they had been only hundreds of students spread out over five universities, they were soon more than 2,000 people in Plaza Brión. That number continued to climb until, by most estimates, there were nearly 10,000 people assembled there by the afternoon. Eventually, they filled the plaza and began to spill out onto surrounding streets. Again, the regime dispatched the police and National Guard to disperse the crowds. But the rally had hit a chord. The next day protests erupted again. But instead of just those in Caracas, students at other universities in other major cities began to stage their own blockades and demonstrations. “We weren’t people with a plan,” says Yon Goicoechea, a law student and student leader from Andrés Bello Catholic University, who soon became the most recognizable face of the Venezuelan student movement. “But we understood that we needed to do something the next day. We had to guide that spontaneous expression. We couldn’t imagine the dimensions of the protest.”

For the next month, student protests against the closing of RCTV took place every day. Even though the demonstrations had clearly caught a spark and spread quickly, they had, in truth, almost no chance of changing anything. Chavez had already forced RCTV off the airwaves and replaced it with a government-owned channel. If the goal had been to save RCTV, then it was already lost. But that had not been the goal. Rather, the protests in May and June 2007 announced the presence of the student movement as a force in Venezuelan political life going forward. “We did not achieve a concrete objective,” admits Goicoechea. “But when you are in a dictatorship the act of giving hope and defeating fear is a very important objective in itself.” If no one else was going to stand up to Chavez, then the students would.

They didn’t have to wait long for another opening. On Aug. 15, Chavez proposed a constitutional referendum that would grant him new and significant powers as president. It was an incredibly bold proposal containing 69 separate constitutional amendments. One revision permitted him to declare states of emergency during which he could censor all media outlets. One empowered him to draw up new administrative regions governed by his own handpicked vice presidents. Another made it more difficult to collect signatures to recall the president—a tactic the opposition had attempted in 2004. Perhaps most controversially, one amendment abolished presidential term limits, opening the way for Chavez to be president for life. And, in an effort to help generate public support for the referendum, it was chock full of populist proposals such as a six-hour workday and social security benefits for everyone from street vendors to stay-at-home moms. Chavez was not seeking to merely revise the constitution; he sought to fundamentally change the relationship between state and society. His proposed reforms ran over 44 single-spaced pages.

This time the students had a clear objective: Defeat the referendum. But there was probably no one in Venezuela—including among the students—who would have been willing to wager that they could pull it off. In fact, it wasn’t even clear that students were interested. After Chavez announced his referendum, Barrios remembers they called for a student assembly at his university; eight people showed up. He said student leaders realized that, despite the success they had mobilizing students only a couple months earlier over RCTV, they had to start all over again. “That was a real challenge for us, to jumpstart something that had been spontaneous,” says Barrios.

The movement’s leaders spent nearly a month getting their classmates motivated for the fight. The first step was pure education. They needed to make everyone understand what was at stake and force them to take notice. Some of the referendum’s provisions would allow the government to seize private property. So student organizers would seize the school cafeterias, marking them off with yellow tape and signs saying it was now government property. They filled the universities’ gardens with faux tombstones; on each tombstone, they wrote a political right that would soon expire. As people joined, they were made to feel a part of the movement. Everyone had jobs to do, and felt ownership in the effort, even if they were rank and file. Student leaders became pragmatic about how they branded the movement. They made T-shirts. They created their own version of the Livestrong wrist bracelets. “It needed to be cool for you to be in the student movement,” says Barrios. “And if that’s what you need to do in order to drive thousands of people into the streets, that’s what you need to do.” 

The slogan for the opposition parties’ had been “Chavez, Get Out Now!” To the students, that was a mistake. They had no interest in furthering the polarizing war of words that Chavez had started. For starters, the goal was to defeat the referendum, not unseat Chavez. The president had demonstrated his popularity, so the students realized that demonizing Chavez would likely be a losing strategy with voters they needed to sway. “We weren’t against Chavez,” says Goicoechea. “We didn’t start this to take out Chavez. The first important thing that distinguished us was our message. It wasn’t radicalizing people against Chavez. It was inclusive. We started our campaign focused on positive values.” Indeed, they felt so strongly about it that they took pains to avoid even mentioning the president. “I worked on the communications side,” recalls Alvarez, “and we would never say Chavez at all. We would speak about the government. We would always speak about values.”

And, like youth movements elsewhere, the clearest advantage that the students brought was their age and political independence. “People started supporting us because we were too young to be politicians and we were too young to be asking for something in return,” says Alvarez. “We were not fighting to get elected to something.” Such seemingly pure motives put the regime on the defensive. Chavez reverted to his polarizing rhetoric, referring to the students as “rich kids,” “sons of the empire,” and “fascists.” But these attempts to tie the students to the wealthy or the United States largely fell flat with the public. By the fall, it became clear that the student movement had achieved something no one else ever had: Chavez was responding to his opponent’s political message rather than the other way around.

Of course, Chavez brought more than his political rhetoric to this fight. Like all authoritarian leaders, he had the power to suppress the students through force and intimidation. Here the students liked to say that the approach they took to fighting Chavez was like trying to fight Mike Tyson. “If you’re going to fight Mike Tyson, you’re not going to box against him because, even though he is crazy, he’s going to kill you,” says Barrios, laughing. “But if you can challenge him to a game of chess, you might have a chance to defeat Mike Tyson. We’re not going to fight [Chavez’s military or police] because they have guns and weapons; they’d kill us. But if we can take them away from their game and put them in our game, a game that we control, then we can defeat them. Yes, it’s possible that Mike Tyson will get angry after you beat him in chess, and hit you. But if he does that you’re going to have the support of the population. If Mike Tyson hits you in a boxing match, everybody says you deserve it. After all, you went into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson.”

How do you keep Chavez and his regime on its heels? The answer was creative, original, and unexpected protests. It was well and good to have marches and demonstrations in the streets. But the students resisted falling into a pattern of going out, marching, and getting repressed day after day. Instead, in October and November, Venezuelans witnessed an incredible array of new and creative protests led by the students. Like many of the actions they had first taken on their campuses, their demonstrations were often aimed at educating the public about what Chavez’s constitutional referendum would mean for Venezuelan life. Sometimes when they blocked roads they would let people pass only if they could name one article of the constitution Chavez wanted to change. They distributed cartoons that explained the issues in clear and simple language. Instead of a protest with 1,000 people, they would dispatch teams of 10 people to 100 subway stations. There they might distribute newspapers they had created with headlines from the future. Each headline revealed the consequences that had befallen Venezuelans because of the government’s unlimited powers.

Humor proved a potent weapon.  “Venezuela is very famous for having Miss Universe. We really care about Miss Venezuela,” Alvarez told me. So the students made a picture of Miss Venezuela from the future—and it was an old lady who refused to give up her crown. “Everyone wants a new girl every year,” says Alvarez, laughing. “But what if the actual Miss Venezuela wanted to keep her crown for 15 years?”

As the date for the referendum approached, security forces became more aggressive. Students and their families started receiving death threats. Students were being beat up at rallies by thugs while the police stood nearby. And individual student leaders began to come under incredible amounts of pressure. None more so than Yon Goicoechea.

In 2007, while Goicoechea was helping to lead the student movement, his own family was in crisis. Earlier that year his father had gone on trial for murder. His father and his family claimed the killing was in self-defense. Regardless of the circumstances, having Goicoechea’s father in prison and on trial gave the regime leverage. One day Venezuelan Vice President Jorge Rodríguez had his bodyguards pick up Goicoechea as he walked down the street. Rodríguez wanted to make a deal. “The vice president of the republic said that he would get my father out of jail if I stopped the protests. I didn’t accept that and my father is still in jail. We have consequences. We sacrifice things. It wasn’t easy.”

I asked Goicoechea to explain. “Did the vice president want you to quit the student movement or undermine it?”

“If the vice president had told me if I quit, my father would be out of jail, I would have quit,” replied Goicoechea, with no hesitation. “What I couldn’t do was to stop something that was bigger than me and that I was responsible for. I have consequences and I pay daily.” After Goicoechea refused the vice president’s offer, the charges against his father were changed in order to raise his possible prison sentence. Instead of 6 years, Goicoechea’s father was sentenced to 20 years. After a few moments, Goicoechea says quietly, “They intimidate and they play hard.”

Six Bulletproof Vests

On Sunday, Dec. 2, Venezuelans came out to vote on the referendum. Neither side knew if it had the votes to win. The bluffing began almost right away.

Yon Goicoechea got a phone call from a Chavista student leader at noon. He said he needed to meet with Goicoechea and it was important. “We got together in a public place and there was a very high functionary of the secret police there,” recalls Goicoechea. “And the high functionary of the secret police told me that they had the information that they had won. He offered all the resources that I need—

whatever that means—to avoid bloodshed in Venezuela. Of course, the way to avoid it was to not go to the streets.” After using his father’s fate to threaten Goicoechea, the regime was now resorting to bribery. Goicoechea simply needed to convince his fellow student leaders not to protest the outcome of the election.

Goicoechea knew that the regime didn’t actually know if it had won or not. It was only midday and people were still voting. But he could just as easily bluff. So, he told the officer of the secret police that they had information that the students had won. “If we win, we will go to the streets and defend it,” Goicoechea replied. “And if you want to avoid bloodshed that is your responsibility because you are the national security.”

The students had no illusions about what it would take to triumph on Dec. 2, 2007. Goicoechea told me that there are two things you must have if you want to win an election in Venezuela. “You have to win and you have to have the Army. If one of those elements fails, you lose. Because the Army won’t defend you if you lose, and if you win, and the Army does not defend you, you also lose.”

It wasn’t that the military needed to support your goals or your political project. Rather, it needed to see the costs of overturning an election as too great to pursue. “One thing is understanding how the military works, especially in countries like Venezuela,” says Barrios. “If there is a degree of institutionalism still alive in the military, they would take the decision that requires the less use of force. So we wanted to create a credible threat, saying that if you don’t recognize the official result, you’re going to have to use an incredible amount of force.”

Throughout the day information coming into their headquarters was largely positive, but the students had no idea if they were winning. Even at its best, they believed any lead they might have remained within the margin of error. Nevertheless, they did nothing but project confidence. Around 7 p.m., Goicoechea, smiling from ear to ear, gave a press conference congratulating students and supporters for their work and saying that all that was left to do was defend the vote. The clear subtext was that they had won, and it was just a matter of being announced. His bravado was pure theater. He had no idea if they were ahead or not.

By midnight, the National Election Commission still had not reported a result. Among the student leaders, nerves were fraying. Goicoechea spoke to contacts in the military that said the generals had told Chavez he must accept the result, but the students increasingly imagined that the regime intended to steal the election. At roughly 1 a.m., Vice President Rodríguez called and spoke to Leopoldo López, a young leader of the political opposition, who had been supportive of the students’ campaign and was there with the movement’s leaders. According to Barrios, the vice president implied that the regime intended to change the election results, and that the students had best not do anything about it in the interests of their own personal security. “And I remember Leopoldo answered him by saying that if you change the results of the election, you will find thousands of people in the streets and you will find me and the university students at the head of those protests,” says Barrios. The election had come down to a high-stakes game of chicken.

Even today, the students won’t say entirely what they had planned for that night and the next day. It had been Barrios’ responsibility to plan for the event in which the regime tried to steal the election. And at a few minutes past 1 in the morning, with the government still silent on the referendum’s result, the moment they hoped would never come had arrived: The student movement had to go out and defend its votes. “It was a scenario we had prepared for,” recalls Barrios. “I remember we all started leaving the room. We only had six bulletproof vests, so we gave them to the most recognizable of our leaders that were going to be out there protesting. And I remember there were not enough for me.As Barrios was about to leave, he stopped for a moment to call his parents. His mother picked up the phone.

“How are you doing, honey?” she said.

“Mom, shit got complicated,” he replied.

“What happened? Did we lose the election?”

“No, we won, but they might want to take it away.” And then Barrios remembers that his mom said the “cutest thing ever.”

“Don’t worry honey, these things happen sometimes. We’ll get them next time.”

“No,” Barrios told his mom. “We’re not going to get them next time. I mean, we won the election and we are going to push through.”

“What does that mean? When are you coming home?” his mom asked.

“I don’t think I’m coming home today, Mom.”

“So that means you are coming home tomorrow? When?”

“I don’t think I am coming home at all, Mom,” he replied. His mother dropped the phone and started crying. His father picked it up and Douglas told him what he had told his mother. His father demanded that he tell him where he was. He heard his father repeating, “Where are you? Where are you?” as he said goodbye and hung up. Barrios then took the battery out of his cell phone. He put it in one pocket and the phone in another, as he headed outside. He climbed onto a motorcycle, heading for the next location, where they would activate their plan. Just as he started to pull out, someone yelled, “Douglas, Douglas, wait, wait! They’re going to announce the results.”

Barrios jumped off the bike and ran back inside.

They had won. At 1:20 a.m., the vice president conceded the election. It would be several hours before Chavez would face his own supporters. To this day, the final vote tally from Dec. 2, 2007, has never been released. And, although it is impossible to say, it might never have happened if Chávez Chavez hadn’t closed down RCTV.

Adapted from The Dicatator’s Learning Curveby William J. Dobson. © 2012 by William J. Dobson. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of yhe Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.