The CATO Institute is awarding its 2008 Milton Friedman Prize — a cool half-million dollars — to Yon Goicoechea, a leader of Venezuela’s student resistance against executive power-grabs. The students frustrated President Hugo Chavez’s dream of amending the country’s constitution to allow him to remain in office indefinitely. Chavez, not one to go quietly into the night — and with a term that extends to 2013, he’ll still be around for a while yet — put pressure of the old fashioned kind on his young opponents: he sent leftist goons around to break bones and noses (including Goicoechea’s) at the students’ demonstrations.

I can’t think of a better recipient for the Friedman Prize than a representative of the Venezuelan students, though it’s obvious how Chavez will spin the award: Yankee capitalist imperialists buying an opposition to Venezuela’s elected leader. For the students, there’s a trade-off. Their movement has derived much of its strength from its independence and clear-burning idealism — a point Peter Hitchens drives home in the cover story of the forthcoming (May 19) issue of TAC: “Unlike traditional conservative political parties, discredited by years of corruption, neglect, and incompetence, the students could not be dismissed as self-serving or as enemies of the Venezuelan poor. … They remained, to the end, untainted by conventional politics.” But youthful idealism alone is not enough, Hitchens notes: “their purity also limited their ability to do more than oppose.”

The Friedman Prize will give them the ability to oppose the creep of autocracy in their country much more effectively — and, in time, to do more than merely resist. Whatever invective (and worse) Chavez hurls at the students, I suspect the people of Venezuela, on the evidence of the battle over the constitutional referendum, will firmly with Goicoechea and his friends. But it will be a hard fight, one that only the Venezuelans themselves can win. As Hitchens writes in his TAC essay, “the real essence of civilization, freedom under the law, seems much harder to export than the cheaper, flashier commodity we like to call ‘democracy.'”