Venezuelan Government Condemns Violent Demonstrations

Violent confrontations related to the campaign for an amendment to
Venezuela's constitution that would abolish the two-term limit on
elected office have taken place in several Venezuelan cities, prompting
the government to proclaim that demonstrators who threaten public
security should be promptly detained by local police.

By James Suggett - Venezuelanalysis.com

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Opposition students throw rocks at police during anti-amendment protest Tuesday (AP)
Opposition students throw rocks at police during anti-amendment protest Tuesday (AP)

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Caracas police detain six pro-Chavez demonstrators who tear gassed an opposition political meeting. (AP)
Caracas police detain six pro-Chavez demonstrators who tear gassed an opposition political meeting. (AP)
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Mérida, January 21st, 2009 (Venezuelanalysis.com)-- Violent confrontations related to the campaign for an amendment to Venezuela's constitution that would abolish the two-term limit on elected office have taken place in several Venezuelan cities, prompting the government to proclaim that demonstrators who threaten public security should be promptly detained by local police.

"Any violent destabilization that arises should be dissolved immediately," Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez ordered the nation's police forces during a speech to pro-amendment women's groups Sunday. "Throw tear gas at them... the law must be upheld," he said.

In recent years, armed anti-Chávez groups repeatedly shut down city streets to oppose the Chávez government by commandeering and demolishing public buses, firing guns, throwing molotov cocktails at police officers, and burning tires, while the police contained but very rarely arrested the protesters. Now, Chávez urged, such passivity by security forces must end.

The president stressed, though, that peaceful marches are entirely permitted. He was echoed by PSUV Vice President Alberto Müller Rojas, who said, "Demonstrations that are consistent with current Venezuelan laws are well-received... What is not permitted is that, parallel to these demonstrations, crimes are committed that harm the rest of society."

Meanwhile, several violent confrontations have occurred, some attributed to opposition forces and others attributed to proponents of the government.

In Caracas on Monday, motorcyclists identifying themselves as members of the pro-Chávez organization La Piedrita threw several tear gas canisters at the building of the apostolic delegates in Venezuela. The apostolic facility is considered to sympathize with the opposition and last year granted opposition student leader Nixon Moreno asylum after Moreno was charged with rape.

Police detained six members of La Piedrita who tear gassed a meeting of the opposition party Bandera Roja on Tuesday and declared the party's leaders "military targets."  

In the western city of Mérida Monday, masked opposition students burned tires and threw glass bottles to block off a major avenue, then retreated into the university before any confrontations with police.  

In Táchira state on Tuesday, chairs flew through the air as a debate between Chavista and opposition students became heated in the state parliament.

Also Tuesday, Caracas police detained five opposition students after the students vandalized city streets while marching toward the Supreme Court without a permit. The students had solicited a permit, but it was denied because a permit had already been granted to another event in the same area, according to Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami.

The students' stated intention was to peacefully demand the nullification of the constitutional amendment referendum. However, Metropolitan Police Chief Carlos Meza said the vehicle carrying the sound equipment for Tuesday's march also contained hundreds of Molotov cocktails and piles of rocks, and that police had seized trucks carrying car tires, gasoline, and homemade bombs near the university the day before.

All of this follows a previous week of violent political acts. First, arsonists wearing opposition t-shirts during a violent anti-amendment march set fire to three hectares of a national park near Caracas. Then, unidentified motorcyclists exploded a molotov cocktail inside a truck that was parked on university grounds and belongs to the president of the student government at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), Ricardo Sánchez, who is a prominent anti-Chávez activist.

UCV Rector Cecilia Arocha and other university authorities across the country, known to be staunch opposition allies, have consistently denied that opposition students are involved in violent activities, and accused the government of ordering attacks against the opposition.

On Monday, pro-Chávez student activists found nearly 10,000 t-shirts advocating a ‘No' vote against the amendment in the rector's office at the publicly funded Liberator Experimental Pedagogical University in Caracas.

Venezuelan government officials have issued sweeping denunciations of violent demonstrations both for and against the proposed constitutional amendment and ordered criminal investigation units to investigate all recent cases.

Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami called the tear gassing of the apostolic building, the bombing of Sanchez's car, and the molotov cocktails found in possession of opposition students "unjustifiable and inadmissible," and emphasized that "dialogue and peace are the indispensible tools for the construction of democracy."

Nonetheless, PSUV leaders suspect that opposition groups are behind some of the violence that has been attributed to pro-government groups. Müller Rojas said Tuesday, "We totally reject the violence and we call on all groups to control their behavior," but added, "It appears that [the violent actors] are plotting with the opposition to make it look like this is a violent government."