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Violent Opposition Student Protests Shut Down Venezuelan City and University

Mérida, December 10, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)-- Post-election violence in Venezuela continued in the city of Mérida on Tuesday when an anti-Chávez student group from the local University of the Andes (ULA) known as the March 13th Movement (M13), which has been violently blocking major streets in Mérida for nearly two weeks, clashed with pro-Chavez protestors during the inauguration of Mérida’s new opposition mayor, former ULA Rector Lester Rodríguez.

At least one person, a photographer for Mérida’s municipal council, was injured by a rock as pro-Chávez and opposition proponents hurled glass bottles, rocks, and tear gas bombs at each other, causing the inauguration event to be evacuated.

The incident followed nearly two straight weeks of M13 demonstrations to demand better transport, security, and cafeterias for the students and to oppose an amendment to the national constitution that National Assembly has proposed in order to abolish term limits on the presidency.

The protests appear to be linked to the call for a national student rebellion against the amendment earlier this week by Yon Goicoechea, a national oppositional student leader. Goicoechea recently received a $500,000 reward from the U.S.-based libertarian Cato Institute and will likely hold a post in the administration of the new opposition mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma.

Approximately twenty-two people were injured, including professors, students, and police officers during the blockage of five major avenues in Mérida by masked M13 protestors who burned tires and showered the streets with broken glass bottles, causing traffic jams and business closings across the city.   

The protestors, many of whom were reportedly armed with handguns, broke the window of a taxi, commandeered a city bus and burned it in the street, threw molotov cocktails into a local department store, then threw rocks and shot marbles at police officers who attempted to enter, knocking out two lower front teeth of one officer and injuring four others.

Anticipating the scale of violence of the M13, a group that is notorious for having shot at police officers in massive assaults in April 2006 and again last July, the Merida police created security perimeters of several hundred yards around each point of protest shortly after the initial protests began.

As is usually the case in Mérida, the police did not directly confront the students until several days after the protests began, when the students stepped up their confrontational tactics, including the targeting of innocent bystanders.

Also, the students set up their protest sites in front of the various ULA a faculties around the city, so when the police approach, the students can easily retreat onto university grounds, where the police are forbidden to go because of the constitutional autonomy of public universities.

The president of the ULA student federation, Liliana Guerrero, who was elected with support from the M13, criticized the “complicity of the Mérida police” toward the protestors, saying they should have restored order much earlier.

ULA Rector Mario Benucci criticized the protestors, saying the violence “destroys the democratic spirit that should prevail in a plural nation,” and also criticized the police, saying, “It has been repeatedly requested that the public security forces restore order.”

All ULA classes have officially been cancelled for 15 days due to the protests, effectively postponing exams in many departments until mid-January. Many Mérida citizens think this was the M13’s true objective, since the group has protested for more student vacation time in the past.

Bennuci said each day the university is paralyzed represents a loss of 2.5 million bolivars ($1.2 million) for the Venezuelan state.

Also this week, in Cardenal Quintero municipality in the northern tip of Mérida state, 12 people were injured as presumed opposition groups assaulted the inauguration of the new mayor from the PSUV party, according to local newspapers.

Published on Dec 10th 2008 at 11.25pm