November 3, 2007

Let them grow up

Katy says: Two kids are dead in my hometown of Maracaibo, shot down by the violence that is rapidly creeping into our nation’s soul and changing things forever. Their only mistake was protesting for their rights in a country where protesting is hardly a safe thing to do. The dead students are part of a nationwide movement that has captured the country’s airwaves and imagination in the past few weeks. But before casualties continue to mount, we need to ask what the nature of the student movement is, and what our role as spectators is and should be.

It’s hard for me to look at the current student movement and not feel, in some ways, identified. Fifteen years ago I was an elected student leader myself in my alma mater, the UCAB. I was active in student politics out of a sense of duty, of wanting to participate in bigger ideas and issues. But before I come across as some altruistic public servant, let me clarify that these feelings were part of a morass of feelings and motivations that included a sense of pride and a want of self-promotion, a longing to be popular.

Back then I was not wise enough to recognize that my inclination to participate in student politics had its share of unhealthy egomania. That lack of wisdom is reflected in some of the mistakes I made during my tenure. My lack of judgment during those times makes me grateful today that the country was not clamoring student leaders to be anything but that.

One specific incident comes to mind. When time came to elect my successors, I came down with a bad case of the flu. I went to the voting process sick, and I was in charge of counting the ballots. This led me to proclaim at the beginning the vote count, that I was happy because “por fin se acabó esta vaina…” (at last, this crap is over).

Obviously, the student newspaper skewered me for it, deservedly so. It took me a while to recognize this experience as a valuable and humbling one rather than an embarrassing moment that made an instant enemy of the author of my first negative press.

The reason I bring this up is because the current student movement’s mistakes remind me of my own and make me wish they, too, had some space in which to make them. For example, I think that wearing T-shirts with provocative messages in a hostile environment is looking for trouble, something that will lead to violence. Chaining yourself to the steps of the CNE when they have just listened to what you have to say is uncalled for and hurts your objectives. All these situations engender violence and beg the question – what do the students seek to accomplish? If they want to be heard, provoking violence is not the way to do it. But if what they want is to provoke the government, they will end up losing. Is there a "student movement" as such, or are we placing our hopes on a ragtag group of young people with wildly different agendas?

Due to the extraordinary times we are living in, and the unheralded focus being placed on them, the student movement is over-reaching. While the movement’s leaders may not have wanted it this way, they seem to be encouraging attention and enjoy basking in the limelight. Yet they must remember that while they are definitely helping in the general move to stop Chavez from cementing himself in power, they cannot accomplish this on their own.

The fault, however, does not lie with the students. The fault lies with us, who applaud and encourage them and are ready to christen them in glorious accolades. The fault lies with the media that makes people like Yon Goicoechea and Stalin Gonzalez national leaders when they are clearly not prepared to assume such a role.

Mr. Goicoechea, Mr. González and the others are certainly smart, courageous and media-savvy. They are filled with the innocence of those who think ideas can change the world, and with the hubris of those who have not yet tasted life’s defeats. Yet these attributes we find so attractive and refreshing are precisely the ones that handicap their chances of effecting change.

The students cannot lead the way. They have no concrete proposal for the country, and they have not lived enough to find one. They will be slaughtered – both politically and, God forbid, literally. Their lives may be ruined and the hopes of their generation could be shattered. Who are we to place this burden on them? And why should the country as a whole suffer through their juvenile mistakes?

So as we sit by the TV, enthralled by the latest act of bravado from these original characters, let’s ask ourselves whether we are implicitly applauding while children do our dirty work for us. By cheering them on and placing them at the front of our struggles, we may be inadvertently leading these kids to their doom while they enjoy their newfound recognition.

We should know better, because they do not.