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, dishevelled 24-year-old who lives with his parents.
Juan Requesens, a student leader, has leapt in recent weeks from campus politics to the swirling centre of Venezuela’s worst unrest in a decade. A talent for public speaking has driven his rise, but perhaps just as appealing is that he is not one of the opposition politicians Venezuelans already know.
In the past week, President Nicolas Maduro has repeatedly invited him to “peace” talks, but Mr Requesens refuses, insisting that Mr Maduro free jailed protesters and meet other conditions first. Venezuela’s Interior Minister is publicly pressuring Mr 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 Mr Requesens, saying they, too, will not meet Mr Maduro until the students go first.
With hundreds injured and at least 22 killed, including another student leader, Daniel Tinoco, who was shot on Monday night in the western city of San Cristobal, it is a big load on the shoulders of Mr Requesens.
“It’s a lot to worry about,” said Mr Requesens, who is the student council president at the Central University of Venezuela and who was just nine when Mr Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, came to power. “But it’s been pretty exciting, too.”
Excitement, however, can take the protests only so far. Channelling the student-led uprising into a cohesive mass movement is proving more difficult.
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 have since become semi-permanent fixtures in mostly middle-class neighbourhoods, snarling traffic and frustrating many of the people who are otherwise united in opposition to Mr 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 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. Mr 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.
Mr 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 Chavez supporters who are losing confidence in Mr Maduro. In a country where political debates often devolve into overheated rhetoric, student leaders sometimes sound more adult than elected officials do.
“All Venezuelans are facing the same problems, the same shortages, the same insecurity,” Mr Requesens said, speaking on a recent weeknight at a neighbourhood meeting in a public park, part of the students’ attempt to organise 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 bushy beard and a barrel-wide midsection, Mr Requesens looks like a younger, woollier version of Chris Christie. Speeches and cigarettes have left him with a hacking cough, and the soles of his Adidas trainers are coming unglued. A month ago, Mr Requesens had 12,000 Twitter followers. Now he has 450,000. Although nearly all of Venezuela’s television and radio stations are in the hands of the government or pro-government broadcasters, Mr Requesens can assemble anti-government marches as long as the battery of his battered smartphone holds up.
He and his two closest political advisers – his college buddies – spend their days zipping around Caracas on motorbikes, racing between student debates, meetings with opposition politicians and anti-government rallies.
They are facing threats on multiple fronts, and not only from the government. A smaller, more radical student organisation, representing mostly private universities and aligned with hard-line opposition politicians, wants a more confrontational approach to force Mr Maduro out. Mr Requesens says that won’t work, insisting that 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.
In tone and strategy, Mr Requesens is aligned with opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chavez in October 2012 and was narrowly defeated by Mr Maduro in last April’s special election after Chavez’s death.
But Mr Requesens and his allies see calls for Mr Maduro to resign or be removed as a dead end. They have a more modest set of demands: the release of jailed protesters, justice for those killed and allegedly tortured by security forces, and the insistence that any meeting with Mr Maduro be broadcast live on television, giving them a chance to speak directly to the people.
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 Mr Requesens speak in the park. “Juan can appeal to a lot more people.”
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