- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

The 1968 riots in Paris and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing may be better known, but student movements have emerged most strongly in Latin America in recent years.

Student activism is on the rise in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Venezuela and Brazil, and has resulted in several substantial victories.

Student movements “have historically played a very central role” in many South American countries, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chairman of the university’s Center for Latin American Studies.

“What we see today is, in many ways, different than the past, but it also reflects the role of the students as an important force in their respective countries.”

Protests in Venezuela contrast to the typical student movement. Demonstrators there are protesting a government that follows leftist policies.

Gustavo Tovar Arroyo, a human rights activist from Venezuela, has published a book on the country’s student movement, “Students for Liberty.”

He said the movement picked up steam about a year ago when the Venezuelan government shut down RCTV, the popular opposition television station. Yon Goicoechea, a 23-year-old law student, organized more than 40 marches averaging 80,000 people each, according to the Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian public policy research foundation, which awarded Mr. Goicoechea a $500,000 prize in May.

Student actions are credited with the defeat in December of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s proposed constitutional reforms that would have solidified his hold on power.

“In Venezuela, we’ve seen student movements play a very significant role in opposition to the regime,” Mr. Shaiken said. “That’s not unusual, except that this government is ostensibly from the left, and the student movements in Venezuela have been very critical about the authoritarian dimension of the Chavez government.”

Mr. Tovar agreed.

“I believe they changed the course of events last year,” he said. “They did what the Venezuelan opposition couldn’t do in 10 years. … They made a difference and developed a new majority in our country, who are also capable of giving their life for building a new society and to reach freedom.”

In Chile, high school students rather than university students have been the driving force behind protest movements.

“I think in Chile there was a unity,” Mr. Shaiken said. “It was as if students gave energy, visibility and a real engagement to many of the demands the professors had. … It’s one thing if your child’s professor is disgruntled about something. It’s quite another if you have someone in the household who feels their future is at stake.”

Jaime Gajardo Orellana, president of Chile’s teachers association, said the movement is fighting a proposed education-reform law. The main concern is that the law would grant the same amount of state funding to private education as to public.

“The student movement has played a key role,” Mr. Gajardo said. “It has been a broad, diverse and very combative movement and, above all, a movement that has questioned the political system.”

In Paraguay, the Students’ Movement for Democratic Participation is taking up a more traditional fight: for cheaper student transportation and to maintain university autonomy. Unlike in the past, students from all sectors of society are involved, student leader Milciades Flecha said.

“Before in the university, only youths from the middle class joined,” said Mr. Flecha, a student at the National University of Asuncion. Now, “in a little more than two years, we have organized 12 mass student marches. It’s been considered historical already, since for decades university students have stayed totally apathetic, without getting involved with the problems that affect them.”

After students blocked traffic on main avenues, Paraguayan lawmakers are considering a measure to grant half-price bus tickets, he said.

Students have the capacity to fight for change because they risk less by protesting than do factory workers or agricultural laborers, Mr. Shaiken said.

“It’s not that they don’t risk things,” he added. “Students are sometimes hurt or killed … but there is that spark that students have historically had that allows them to move first and often dramatically.”

Mr. Tovar said many of the students in Venezuela aspire to become politicians. Besides protesting, they want to be “trained and prepared for running the country,” he said.

The money Mr. Goicoechea received from the Cato Institute was used to start a foundation to fund projects such as an educational institute on politics and a human rights and nonviolence “crusade” in South America that entails developing a human rights watchdog network throughout the region.

“Students in the streets today could wind up the leaders of their country tomorrow, so the experiences of the protests, the ideas that are out there, what happens, will be shaping the future generations of leaders,” Mr. Shaiken said.

The prevalence of action over words is noteworthy, Mr. Tovar said. “It cannot be like those ‘60s student movements, just fighting for fighting, throwing rocks for the sake of throwing rocks,” he said. “No, there has to be a meaning. … We know our responsibility to change things by being part of them.”

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