Venezuelan Students and Security Forces Clash Violently as Referendum Debate Intensifies

Violent student protests erupted again Tuesday in at least six major Venezuelan cities following a week of relative calm, intensifying the political debate over a proposed constitutional amendment that would abolish the two-term limit on elected offices.
Venezuelan Students and National Guard clashed violently in several cities, including Merida (above). (José Luis Rivas)

Mérida, January 28, 2009 (– Violent student protests erupted again Tuesday in at least six major Venezuelan cities following a week of relative calm, intensifying the political debate over a proposed constitutional amendment that would abolish the two-term limit on elected offices, if approved in a national referendum on February 15th.

During student protests against the amendment in Cagua, Aragua state, police detained 12 demonstrators who were armed with Molotov cocktails and cement rocks. The rest of the demonstrators took refuge in buildings on their university campus, the boundaries of which cannot be violated by security forces according to Venezuelan law.

Aragua Governor Rafael Isea, newly elected last November on the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) ticket, affirmed the right of citizens to demonstrate peacefully against the amendment, but asserted, "We will not permit them to sow violence in our state."

These words echoed those of President Hugo Chávez last week, when he gave direct orders to police and National Guard troops to defend peaceful demonstrations but to promptly disperse violent ones.

In the city of Cumaná, Sucre state, National Guard troops responding to reports of university students blocking off major avenues were met with a shower of glass bottles and stones which lacerated the cheek of Sargeant José Alexander Quero.

Students from the University of the Andes campuses in Mérida and San Cristóbal, many wearing improvised balaclavas, also shut down major streets by burning tires and dry grass Tuesday, drawing a response from the police and National Guard.  

In Mérida, anti-amendment students denounced the actions of armed Leftist groups who, the day before, had ridden on motorcycles by the entrance to the campus firing gunshots into the air, as provocation.

Such non-government "revolutionary" patrols have become more active in recent years in reaction to what pro-Chávez forces perceive as coordinated acts of opposition student violence, aimed at creating a climate of chaos in order to influence the outcome of the February 15th vote.

"We are only armed with our books and ideas, with our hands raised above our heads, and they come to launch tear gas and shoot at us," one anti-amendment student in Mérida told Venezuelanalysis.

A reporter from Venezuelanalysis, however, watched as 200 anti-amendment protesters armed with rocks and bottles approached and then attacked a police cordon set up around the university perimeter.

After the students physically assaulted an officer, the police opened fire using shotguns loaded with plastic shrapnel and tear gas against the students. Students later demonstrated the severe bruising inflicted by these shots, which some members of the police seemed to celebrate.

At the height of the confrontation between students and police, Merida's newly elected
PSUV governor, Marcos Díaz, walked into the middle of the conflict. Díaz ordered the police to retreat and, alone, spoke directly with the rioting students. "We must prevent violence in the streets of our city. I am here as the Governor, but also as a citizen of Merida to stop this violence," he said.  

The governor agreed to speak immediately with the armed leftist groups to negotiate their disarmament in return for an immediate cessation of violence from the protesting students.

While Díaz held closed meetings with the Leftists, three armored National Guard vehicles drove slowly along the perimeter of the campus. The anti-amendment students responded by hurling small explosives, Molotov cocktails, glass bottles, and softball-sized rocks at the armoured vehicles, from which troops fired their plastic shrapnel cartridges and half a dozen tear gas canisters to disperse the students.   

Having spent two hours negotiating with representatives of the armed Leftist groups, Governor Díaz announced to the protesters that he had successfully negotiated the disarmament. In return, opposition student representatives declared a temporary cessation to the violent protests, "as long as there is no more provocation from the police or [the Leftist groups]."

Meanwhile, during similarly violent clashes in the city of Maturín, Monagas state, a student was injured as police detained five anti-amendment student demonstrators Tuesday.  

Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami accused university authorities and the private media, who have consistently asserted that the students are not engaging in violence, of inciting the student confrontations with state security forces in order to spread an image of the Chávez government as repressive.

El-Aissami also pointed out the small number of students injured relative to police and National Guard injuries during the clashes, but did not cite any official counts of total injuries on either side.