CARACAS, Venezuela — Three university students became President Hugo Chavez's worst nightmare 15 months ago.
The student leaders — Stalin Gonzalez, Yon Goicoechea and Freddy Guevara — revitalized Venezuela's moribund political opposition and led the movement that in December 2007 inflicted the only national election defeat that Chavez has suffered during his 10 years of power.
The three are back, and they're opposing Chavez again as he makes a second attempt Sunday to win a national referendum that asks Venezuelans whether to allow him to seek re-election indefinitely.
Supporters continued to treat Gonzalez, Goicoechea and Guevara like political rock stars at a massive anti-Chavez street march Saturday, calling out their names and crowding around to snap photos.
"I always wanted to be in politics but never thought I'd be so famous," Gonzalez said earlier, as he greeted well-wishers while riding the Caracas subway to the rally. Gonzalez noted that Chavez telephoned him the day before during a televised news conference.
"Chavez called you?" a man with an eye patch asked Gonzalez. "Yeah," he replied. "He said that he wanted the march to be carried out peacefully and that he doesn't favor violence."
Having finished their studies, Gonzalez, Goicoechea and Guevara are assisting a new crop of student leaders who are organizing massive street marches and mobilizing public opinion against Chavez and the whole machinery of government that's backing him.
Gonzalez, Goicoechea and Guevara are now youth activists for Venezuelan political parties that oppose Chavez.
Polls find that Sunday's referendum could go either way, although Chavez seems to have a slight advantage.
The stakes are huge. Chavez desperately wants to lift term limits so he can seek re-election in 2012 and thereafter, and continue to lead the anti-U.S. bloc in Latin America.
In a measure of the stakes, government forces broke up two peaceful student marches recently with tear gas and arrests. The secret police raided the home of one student activist in the middle of the night last month and arrested him.
"We have filled a vacuum of power and become the symbol of opposition to Chavez," Guevara said.
By 2007, the opposition to Chavez was reeling. He'd discredited the country's two traditional political parties when he was elected president during an economic crisis in 1998. He then won re-election, survived a recall attempt and won another re-election campaign, all the while outsmarting his opponents.
In May 2007, however, Chavez closed RCTV, a television station that's popular with ordinary Venezuelans because of its soap operas and with the president's critics because its news programs cast him in a harsh light.
Enter Gonzalez, Goicoechea and Guevara. They organized street demonstrations against Chavez that breathed life into the opposition.
Still, Chavez seemed a sure bet when he announced a national referendum in December 2007 to lift term limits.
The student leaders decided to challenge him.
Guevara, a communications major, was the president of the student federation at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. A one-time drama student who studied leadership, Guevara became the bridge among the often-fractious student organizations.
Gonzalez, a law school major, was the president of the main student federation at the Central University of Venezuela. His leftist parents raised him to be a true socialist, even naming him, his sister, Ilich, and his other sister, Engels, for the Marxist triumvirate of Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Friedrich Engels.
As a teenager, Gonzalez organized study circles and debates in a Marxist-Leninist Party. As a university student leader, however, he'd become a more moderate leftist.
Gonzalez became known in 2007 as a shrewd strategist in organizing the opposition to Chavez's first attempt to end term limits.
Goicoechea, a law student at Andres Bello Catholic University, headed the nationwide students federation. The grandson of Basque immigrants who fled persecution in Franco's Spain, Goicoechea became the fiery voice of the students.
They called Chavez autocratic, unwilling to listen to others or work with those who held different views.
"We favor a more collective leadership," Goicoechea said in an interview.
The three gained a huge following, thanks to repeated news interviews. Chavez tried to discredit them. "Spoiled brats," "terrorists" and "imperialists," he thundered.
Gonzalez, Goicoechea and Guevara received death threats and had to switch where they slept every few nights.
After Chavez's defeat, their terms as student leaders ended.
In 2008, Guevara, 22, was elected one of the 13 city council members in metropolitan Caracas. He also became a youth organizer in the center-left opposition party, Un Nuevo Tiempo, or A New Time.
Gonzalez, 28, became a high-ranking party leader in Un Nuevo Tiempo. He helped plan Saturday's march.
Goicoechea, 24, won a $500,000 prize from the Cato Institute, a libertarian research center based in Washington. He's donated the money to create a leadership academy for young adults in Venezuela. Goicoechea has joined the center-right Primero Justica, or First Justice, political party and become a youth organizer for metro Caracas' mayor.
"They are part of the vanguard trying to create a new Venezuela," said Leopoldo Lopez, who at 37 has emerged as a popular young opposition political figure in his own right.
The student leaders who've replaced Gonzalez, Goicoechea and Guevara have barely lost a beat.
Ricardo Sanchez, 24, is an international relations major and the president of the main student federation at the Central University of Caracas.
David Smolansky, 23, is a journalism major and the president of the student federation at Andres Bello Catholic University.
Juan Mejia, 22, is an industrial engineering major and the president of the student federation at Simon Bolivar University.
The three led the tens of thousands of marchers who protested against Chavez on Saturday and were three of the seven speakers to the assembled multitude afterward.
"We students never expected to be speaking to so many people," began Smolansky, wearing a baseball cap backward.
Chavez, 54, has lowered his rhetoric against the three new student leaders. But no one has missed that a controversial television talk-show host allied with the government has attacked Smolansky's Jewish heritage.
"The attacks have become a symbol of our political force," Smolansky said in an interview after he and the other student leaders announced another massive anti-Chavez march for Friday. "Sixty percent of Venezuelans are 30 years or younger. The future belongs to us, win or lose Sunday."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009