CARACAS, Venezuela – After nearly a month of anti-government protests and street clashes, the one figure who may be capable of guiding Venezuela out of its crisis is a bearded, disheveled 24-year-old who lives with his parents.
Juan Requesens, a student leader, has leapt in recent weeks from campus politics to the swirling center of Venezuela’s worst unrest in a decade. A talent for public speaking has driven his rise, but perhaps just as appealing: He is not one of the well-established opposition politicians Venezuelans already know.
In the past week, President Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly invited him to “peace” talks, but Requesens refuses, insisting Maduro free jailed protesters and meet other preconditions first. Venezuela’s interior minister is publicly pressuring Requesens to go to the western state of Tachira, where the protests first erupted and barricades are blocking deliveries of food, to get students there to stand down.
Even opposition politicians have begun deferring to Requesens, saying they, too, will not meet with Maduro until the students go first.
With hundreds injured and at least 21 killed so far, it is a big load on the shoulders of Requesens, the student council president at the Central University of Venezuela, who was just 9 years old when Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, came to power.
“Sure, it’s a lot to worry about,” he said. “But it’s been pretty exciting too.”
Excitement, however, can take the protests only so far. Channeling the student-led uprising into a cohesive mass movement is proving more difficult.
— Juan Requesens (@JuanRequesens) March 10, 2014
The most militant anti-government demonstrators – some students, some not – remain hunkered down at street barricades that began as an angry, emotional response to a government crackdown. They’ve since become semi-permanent fixtures in mostly middle-class neighborhoods, snarling traffic and frustrating many of the people who are otherwise united in opposition to Maduro.
On a recent morning in Caracas’s upscale Altamira district, a handful of hardened, masked street fighters stood along a major thoroughfare, turning back cars and allowing only motorcycles to pass. Piles of garbage and construction debris held the line. One man in a late-model SUV drove up and handed out cans of spray paint, and soon a young woman in a motorcycle helmet was tagging the sidewalk with an anti-Maduro battle cry: “The first one who gets tired loses.”
A middle-aged man in a polo shirt got out of his car and approached the barricade.
“What’s the plan?” he asked. “We want to help. But where is this going?”
That question is on the minds of many here who see no immediate end to the protests nor enough momentum to topple the government. Maduro retains the support of a broad sector of Venezuela’s poor and working classes despite unchecked inflation and shortages of milk, sugar and other basics.
Requesens said he prefers marches over barricades and wants to turn the student rebellion into a broader social movement capable of transcending Venezuela’s economic divides and winning over former Chávez supporters who are losing confidence in Maduro. In a country where political debates often devolve into name-calling, taunts and overheated rhetoric, student leaders sometimes sound more adult than elected officials.
“All Venezuelans are facing the same problems, the same shortages, the same insecurity,” Requesens said, speaking on a recent weeknight at a neighborhood meeting in a public park, part of the students’ attempt to organize beyond campuses. He appeared confident, animated and funny, making frequent jokes about his considerable girth.
“Just don’t ask me to go on a hunger strike,” he said.
With a rangy mutton-chop beard and barrel-wide midsection, Requesens looks like a younger, woolier version of Chris Christie, or one of the Visigoths from the Capital One commercials, minus the sword. Speeches and cigarettes have left him with a hacking cough, and the soles of his Adidas sneakers are coming unglued.
A month ago, Requesens had 12,000 Twitter followers. Now he has 450,000. Though nearly all of Venezuela’s television and radio stations are in the hands of the government or pro-government broadcasters, Requesens can convoke anti-government marches as long as the battery holds up on his battered smartphone.
Este Movimiento Estudiantil sigue en la CALLES! Exigimos JUSTICIA. Basta de IMPUNIDAD!
— Juan Requesens (@JuanRequesens) March 11, 2014
He and his two closest political advisers – his college buddies – spend their days zipping around Caracas on motorbikes, racing between heady student debates, meetings with opposition politicians and fervent anti-government rallies.
They are facing threats on multiple fronts, and not only from the government. A smaller, more radical student organization, representing mostly private universities and aligned with hardline opposition politicians, wants a more confrontational approach to force Maduro out. Requesens says that won’t work, insisting political change must be constitutional, democratic and nonviolent, even if it takes more time.
“A strategy of escalating confrontation will just give the government the chance to discredit us, and continue with more repression,” he said.
He and the other student leaders around him also fear that provocateurs may try to infiltrate their marches to spark violence and scare away the ordinary Venezuelans they need to join them.
In tone and strategy, Requesens is aligned with opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez in November 2012 and was narrowly defeated by Maduro in last April’s special election following Chávez’s death. They are the moderate branch of the anti-government opposition, in contrast to the more hardline wing led by congresswoman María Corina Machado and former Caracas municipal mayor Leopoldo López, who has been jailed at a military prison since the government arrested him Feb. 18, accusing him of inciting violence.
Requesens and his allies see López and Machado’s call for Maduro to resign or be removed as a dead end.
They have a more modest set of demands for Maduro: the release of jailed protesters, justice for those killed and allegedly tortured by security forces, and the insistence that any meeting with Maduro be broadcast live on national television, giving them a chance to speak directly to Venezuelans.
With a divided opposition dominated by familiar faces, many Venezuelans say they are eager for new leaders unsullied by the political battles of the past 15 years.
“We need to believe in the students, not the politicians, because the students aren’t tainted,” said Vanessa Boulton, 32, after listening to Requesens speak in the park. “Juan can appeal to a lot more people.”
Still, the challenge was evident at the event, held in a middle-class neighborhood, with an audience that looked significantly lighter-skinned and wealthier than the rest of the country. While Requesens dresses modestly and attends a public university, many in his circle come from elite families that fit the government’s caricature of the student rebellion as a rich kids’ tantrum.
Requesens, whose father is a doctor and whose mother teaches English, says he is a “social democrat” who believes in “equality of opportunity” and a “market economy with social goals.” His political idol is former president Romulo Betancourt, the “father of Venezuelan democracy,” a mid-20th century liberal reformer who was a close ally of John F. Kennedy.
The reference appeals especially to Venezuelans nostalgic for the pre-Chávez era. Older women, in particular, seem drawn to Requesens, attempting to mother him at rallies with worries about his smoking, diet and safety.
“God bless you,” said one woman who approached him on the street as passing drivers honked their horns in support. She wrapped her arms around his expansive torso and kissed his head, dabbing her tears.
“Thank you,” Requesens told her. “Patience.”
© 2014, The Washington Post