A U.S.-based think tank has awarded a $500,000 prize to the leader of a student protest movement that has posed a potent challenge to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
University student Yon Goicoechea became a household name in Venezuela last year when he led peaceful protests that were widely cited as a key factor in the defeat of sweeping constitutional changes proposed by Chavez.
The Washington-based Cato Institute said it will announce the 23-year-old as winner of the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty on Thursday.
"I see it as a collective prize. The prize is being given to me, but it's being given to me as a representative of something much bigger," Goicoechea said. "It's an acknowledgment of the work that has been done in promoting freedom."
Central role in student protests
Goicoechea took a central role last year in rallying students to oppose what he sees as threats to personal liberties and democracy in Venezuela. The constitutional changes rejected by voters in December would have let Chavez run for re-election indefinitely and would have granted him broad powers to reshape the economy and society in a socialist mold.
The libertarian think tank said Goicoechea was chosen for his leadership in advocating for democratic values.
"He managed to effectively give voice to millions of Venezuelans who believed in democracy, tolerance and modernity, and who felt that they were being left out of politics," said Ian Vasquez, director of the institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.
Goicoechea, a law student who will soon graduate from Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, said he plans to use the prize money to support Venezuela's student parliament, donate to his university and former school, and support a foundation he is helping to set up that will offer training to young leaders who want to play a role in politics.
Asked his views on the state of democracy in Venezuela, Goicoechea said that despite elections, he is concerned about the concentration of power under Chavez and an absence of checks and balances.
"It's growing dangerously close to a totalitarian regime," he said.
Chavez alleges U.S. manipulation
There was no immediate reaction from the government. Chavez denies that personal freedoms are being restricted by his government and says student leaders are being manipulated by the United States.
Goicoechea, who says he regularly receives threats by phone and e-mail due to his activism, said he isn't particularly concerned what the government might say about the award from a U.S.-based organization.
"The government already says we're financed by the CIA. It already says we're paid by the empire. So if they say it one more time, it really isn't that important," he said.
The Cato Institute, a nonprofit public policy research foundation that lobbies for individual liberty and free markets, says it accepts no government funding.
Goicoechea is to be presented with the award next month in New York. The prize is named after Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who died in 2006.