As Venezuela tires of familiar faces, one student leader has a chance to unite the nation

Juan Requesens, with a barrel gut and smokers cough at 24, has become the next great hope for students and the middle class tired of President Maduro’s failings


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.” 

© The Washington Post

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Finance / Accounts Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established and expanding ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss