By Gary Marx

Chicago Tribune

CARACAS, Venezuela

During the past month, Venezuela's capital has been filled with student protesters who represent a new hope for opponents of populist President Hugo Chavez even while the nascent movement is of little immediate threat to his government.

Spurred by Chavez's decision not to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television, the country's most popular television station and harsh critic of his government, thousands of university students have held marches and assemblies defending free speech and other principles while calling for national reconciliation to heal years of divisive political battles.

With their palms painted white as a symbol of non-violence and chanting "Freedom," the protesters have gained credibility in this highly polarized nation by distancing themselves from Venezuela's traditional opposition political parties, which are viewed as corrupt and incompetent.

Some student protesters say they are not opposed to Chavez and even praise the president's anti-poverty programs aimed at improving the living conditions of the poor majority in this oil-rich nation.

Still, the demonstrators are defying a president who remains extraordinarily popular yet faces serious problems such as rampant violent crime and whose decision not to renew RCTV's license is opposed by most Venezuelans, according to analysts and pollsters.

"Democratic values have been decreasing in Venezuela," said Yon Goicoechea, a 22-year-old law student and protest organizer from Caracas' Andres Bello Catholic University. "This is a government that has concentrated all power around the president."

Chavez and other officials say Venezuela remains a vibrant democracy and that they forced RCTV off the public airwaves only because the station backed a failed 2002 coup and violated the nation's broadcast laws. RCTV executives deny any wrongdoing.

Government authorities also dismiss the student demonstrators as a privileged elite being used by the Bush administration and radical opposition groups to destabilize Venezuela and topple the government.

"A lot of them are being manipulated," said Alexander Main, an international relations adviser to Chavez. "A lot of the student leaders ... in this are close to the opposition. That's a well-known fact."

Goicoechea said he comes from a middle-class family, not a rich one. He denied the students are being "manipulated by anyone."

"We are not trying to destabilize the country," he said. "We are just trying to make our voice heard."

William Brownfield, the departing U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, also rejected allegations that Washington is trying to foment trouble by encouraging student protests.

Luis Vicente Leon, a Caracas pollster and analyst, said most Venezuelans disagree with Chavez's decision to pull RCTV off the air, not because it threatens free speech or democracy but because they enjoyed watching "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and other popular RCTV programs.

Leon said discontent with Chavez could deepen within his political base among the poor if the president makes other unpopular decisions such as closing Globovision, the most important opposition-aligned television channel still broadcasting in Venezuela.

"These protests aren't going to kick out Chavez," Leon said. "But people are more sensitized now to any radical decision that Chavez could take in the future. It's a block for Chavez. He can't continue so easy."

The student protests are being closely watched by U.S. officials, who had largely given up on the opposition's ability to challenge Chavez after numerous missteps and repeated defeats at the ballot box.

In December, Chavez won a landslide re-election based largely on his efforts to funnel billions of dollars in oil revenues into health care, education and other social programs.

The president has vowed to accelerate what he describes as Venezuela's transition to "21st Century Socialism," including boosting the government's role in the media. For example, Chavez replaced RCTV with a state-run channel.

Meanwhile, opposition parties have imploded. Analysts say one reason is that they have no leader who can match Chavez's charisma and political savvy.

"They are absolutely burned out," Leon said. "People have no confidence in them."

But analysts say the recent marches have mobilized a sector of Venezuelan society that has stood on the political sidelines in recent years and brought into public view a new generation of 20-something leaders not tainted by past failures.

"It's a very good sign that they've risen up," said Julio Borges, national coordinator of the moderate Primero Justicia party. "You have a new power that has been born."

The student demonstrations began days before RCTV's license expired May 27 and hit their peak in early June before tapering off last week.

Earlier this month, national guardsmen in riot gear looked on as a sea of students waving Venezuelan flags, blowing whistles and shouting out the names of their universities marched peacefully down Caracas' broad Avenida Libertador to deliver a list of demands to the attorney general's office.

In another protest, a group of students rode Caracas' crowded subway with their mouths taped shut. They held small, handwritten signs that read "Peace," "Equality" and "Tolerance."

The majority of demonstrators attend four large universities in Caracas; for many, it is their first involvement in politics.

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