By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Friday was a tale of two marches, one against President Hugo Chávez' proposal that the constitution should be changed to allow for successive re-election, the other in favor.
The anti-reform march was led by students, who've been at the forefront of opposition to Chávez' plan, as they were before an earlier attempt to lift the ban on repeated re-election was rejected at a referendum in December 2007.
They had wanted to march to the National Electoral Council (CNE) under the twin towers of El Silencio in downtown Caracas, but were not allowed to go any further than Plaza Venezuela.
In contrast, the pro-reform march was allowed to proceed from Plaza Morelos to Plaza Caracas, which is not far from the CNE, after receiving permission from Libertador Municipal Mayor Jorge Rodríguez.
It was Rodríguez, a leading figure in Chávez' ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) (and former CNE head) and now the only mayor in Caracas not aligned with the opposition, who ruled that the opposition students could go no further than Plaza Venezuela.
The reason for this was that part of their route had already been allotted to the rival march. Rodríguez said he'd received a request from the organizers of the pro-reform march on January 14 and he granted a permit two days later.
A similar request had been sent in by student leaders on January 21. But that was after Rodríguez had approved the other march.
Plaza Venezuela is on the eastern fringe of Libertador, a stronghold of chavismo, or support for the president. Officials have long been reluctant to allow opposition marches into what government supporters deem to be undisputed chavista territory.
Before Friday's marches, government spokesmen said they did not want rival groups to be in proximity of each other, for fear of violent clashes in the streets. Both marches were reported to have gone off without major incident.
In the wake of Rodríguez' decision, there was a stand-off as police riot squads blocked the student marchers from going beyond Plaza Venezuela. Discretion evidently got the better of valor as the marchers accepted they'd been stymied, both legally and by a show of force, and dispersed quietly.
The president had reiterated his order ahead of Tuesday's march that the security forces should use tear gas and force if necessary against anybody who blocked highways or caused trouble. He and senior government officials have labeled the students as "fascists" bent on "destabilizing" the referendum campaign and the country.
In compliance with his earlier order, police had used teargas and rubber bullets to break up a previous student march last Tuesday that had been aimed at reaching the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ). One of the marchers' demands on that occasion was that the TSJ should rule that the electoral register should be kept open right up to the eve of the February 15 referendum on Chávez' proposal.
The CNE says it will use the register last fixed on December 11 at the referendum. Critics claim that this will effectively disenfranchise as many as 400,000 young people who come of age between then and the referendum.
A small delegation of students was allowed through to hand in a petition to the CNE, but without the moral support of a march behind them.
Friday marked the 51st anniversary of the fall of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.
Both crowds met in a festive atmosphere accompanied, in the case of the supporters of socialist President Hugo Chavez, by popular music groups.
At one of the opposition meeting points Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma appeared, encouraging the crowd to vote "no" in next month's plebiscite.
The impetus to scrap term limits comes from Chavez, who wants to seek another six-year term in 2012 and whose earlier attempt to remove limits to re-election as part of a broader constitutional overhaul went down to defeat in a December 2007 referendum.
A fiery critic of U.S. foreign policy, Chavez was first elected in 1998 and has since won two more elections and defeated a recall attempt, each time by a wide margin. An earlier attempt to scrap term limits was defeated in a December 2008 plebiscite on a broader constitutional overhaul.
Government critics say that allowing unlimited re-election runs contrary to the principle of pluralism enshrined in the 1998 constitution.
Supporters of the change argue that nothing could be more democratic than letting voters decide how long the president and other officerholders should remain in their posts.