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Opposition Students Clash with Police in Effort to Get to Venezuela’s Electoral Council

Caracas, November 2, 2007 ( - Violent clashes took place yesterday between opposition students and the police when students tried to break police lines near Venezuela's National Electoral Council building. Students and members of opposition political parties had marched on the National Electoral Council (CNE) in Caracas to deliver a document calling for the referendum on President Hugo Chavez's constitutional reforms, scheduled for December 2, to be postponed.

As the march passed through the relatively poorer area of Parque Central, the protest was met with spontaneous cries from Chavez supporters of "Chavez is not going" and "They will not return" [a reference to the political leaders of the pre-Chavez era]. Several thousand pro-Chavez students and supporters from the poorer neighbourhoods in Caracas also gathered at the CNE in a counter protest in support of the reforms.

Chanting "No to the reforms," the opposition students carried banners and placards openly calling for violence, as well as pictures of various CNE rectors, describing them as "traitors to the country."

When the opposition protest arrived at approximately 2pm, the CNE directors received a delegation from the students, giving them drinks and cake as they handed over their document. However, on leaving the student delegation attempted to chain themselves to stair well in the entrance of the building before being removed by the National Guard.

The protest then turned violent as the opposition students attempted to break through the police security cordon to get into the CNE, throwing rocks and bottles and setting fire to trash cans, trees and street poles. The police and National Guard then responded with teargas, water canon, and plastic shrapnel to disperse the crowd.

The President of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, rejected the acts of violence on the part of the protestors in a press conference saying, "The attempt to assault the CNE is unacceptable and constitutes a grave act that violates Venezuelan laws."

Lucena also criticised sections of the media which she said were "exacerbating tensions and misinforming about what really happened."

She clarified that the CNE would not accept political pressure of any nature that aims to disrupt the process of holding the constitutional reform referendum.

"The CNE ratifies that it will comply faithfully with the constitutional obligation that it has to guarantee the exercise of the right to vote of all the Venezuelan people", she concluded.

CNE director German Yepez explained that the CNE has no power to postpone the referendum because according to the constitution, it must conduct a referendum within 30 days of the reform proposal's passage by the National Assembly. Since the Assembly passed the proposal today, it must conduct the vote by December 2nd, which it has said will be the date for the vote. Yepez urged the students to direct their complaint to the Supreme Court, if they feel that their rights are being violated.

Images on the oppositional news channel Globovisión also showed some opposition students breaking the windows of a police vehicle and pouring gasoline inside it and attempting to set it on fire before being stopped by other students.

Skirmishes and further clashes with the police continued in the center of Caracas for over an hour as groups of opposition students rampaged down Avenidar Bolivar, destroying benches, burning trees, and ripping out metal railings.

Several students and six police officers were injured in the clashes and one student, Freddy Nazareth Gómez Castillo, 22, was arrested carrying 20 liters of gasoline.

Clashes also occurred for several hours afterwards between opposition and pro-Chavez students at the UCV, as opposition students blockaded the entrance to prevent pro-Chavez students from entering the university. Similar incidents also took place on a number of other campuses around the country.

In a statement on VTV Minister of Justice, Pedro Carreño said the opposition should learn not to use violence. "If a group of Venezuelans doesn't agree with the reforms, they should express themselves in a democratic manner, for example, through the constitutional referendum," said Carreño.

Vice-Minister for Citizen Security, Tarek El Aissami, classified the opposition protestors as "fascists," and described their actions as a "media stunt."

Despite the protests, the reforms look set to be approved in the referendum on December 2 as a poll by the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis (IVAD) shows that support for the reforms is at 50.6%, whereas opposition to the reforms is only 36.0%, with the remainder undecided. Additionally, some opposition groups have also called for a boycott of the referendum, which will further reduce the ‘No' vote.

Opposition groups have also called for the reforms to be stopped "by all means possible," and President Chavez has warned of the possibility of another coup attempt by the opposition.

President of the Bolivarian Federation of Students, Carlos Sierra argued today the acts by opposition students were part of a series of coordinated activities by the opposition with the objective of destabilizing the country in the lead up to the referendum.

The opposition is particularly opposed to a change which would allow Chavez to stand for re-election in 2013, claiming he wants to be president for life. Additional changes they oppose include a proposal to recognise different forms of property such as social and communal property alongside private property, which they say is an attack on private property, and other aspects which they say threaten civil liberties.

However, Chavez denies that he wants to be president for life or that the reforms threaten civil liberties. He says, the reforms, which, if adopted, will institutionalise new forms of popular power and social property, as well as lowering the working day to 6 hours and are necessary to ensure Venezuela's transition towards socialism.

For a video of some of the clashes, click here.

Published on Nov 2nd 2007 at 5.36pm