Venezuelans Demonstrate Peacefully Both For and Against Referendum

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets peacefully this week, in shows of opposition to and of support for a referendum on a constitutional amendment that is to be held next Sunday.

By Spencer Earl - Venezuelanalysis.com

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Students for and against the referendum
Students for and against the referendum encounter one another in a display of getting along during a tense campaign. (Juan Bethencourt)
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Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets peacefully this week, in shows of opposition to and of support for a referendum on a constitutional amendment that is to be held next Sunday. February 9, 2009 (venezuelanalysis.com)-- Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets peacefully this week, in shows of opposition to and of support for a referendum on a constitutional amendment on the removal of the two-term limit on holding elected office that is to be held next Sunday.

Over one hundred thousand Venezuelans marched in the end of campaign rally promoted by opposition parties and private television stations in Caracas on Saturday, many shouting the slogan “No is no!” The slogan refers to the narrow loss of a 2007 constitutional referendum that included the elimination of the two-term limit as one of its 69 proposed changes.

“This is the first time I’ll tell you to stop watching Globovision and come to the march,” urged Alberto Federico Ravell, the director of Venezuela’s 24-hour private news station. Globovision is a Venezuelan affiliate of the cable news company CNN.

At the end of the march, student opposition leaders took the stage, including David Smolansky, from the Catholic University Andres Bello.

“[Before Chavez] it was never bad to be rich, poor, or middle class, Christian or Jewish. This had always been a paradise of coexistence,” Smolansky said, reflecting an oft-heard sentiment from affluent Venezuelans, who say that Chavez has seeded division in a country where as much as 80 percent of the population lived in poverty before he was first elected in 1998.

Opposition leaders acknowledged that President Chavez talked to rally organizers via phone prior to the march, encouraging them to “have a peaceful march.”

The telephone comments were Chavez’s “first gesture” of unity, according to Maracaibo Mayor Manuel Rosales, a presidential candidate in 2006 who was both lauded and derided by opposition forces for accepting Chavez’s landslide victory.

“We said there would be no violence and today there was no violence,” Rosales continued. “That shows that the violence is coming from their side, because we want a Venezuela of love, peace and progress.”

Recent demonstrations of opposition students had been accused of promoting violence, with one such protest resulting in a forest fire in the Waraira Repano National Park that borders northern Caracas.

Meanwhile, in Petare, a poor slum of metropolitan Caracas, President Hugo Chavez and thousands of supporters marched through the streets in support of the constitutional amendment. The march kicked off after a ceremony in which Chavez announced 168 million bolivars (US$7.8 million) in financing for the construction and improvement of housing in the Bombilla neighborhood.

“With these resources, 520 ranchos (shanty houses) will be substituted for respectable houses, and 2,963 other housing improvements will be made for the Venezuelan families of this neighborhood,” Chavez explained.

The next day, Chavez was back on the campaign trail, this time in the opposition-governed state of Zulia. Another “red tide” of thousands of supporters greeted him, where he gave an uncharacteristically brief speech.

“We have to convert all of this into votes, because you can only win elections at the polling places,” Chavez reminded supporters. “We must transform this passion into the perfect electoral tactic.”