By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Student leaders opposed to President Hugo Chávez' bid to secure the right to successive re-election by changing the constitution called on the government to stop accusing them of being violent when their intentions were peaceful.
Although their latest march went off without incident late last week, an earlier protest the previous Tuesday was marred by clashes between students and the Metropolitan Police, who fired volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. Afterwards, leaders of the march accused the police of trying to stir up trouble.
From the president downwards, the government has accused students – most of whom hail from middle class families and those of them who are politically active align with the opposition – of being "fascists" bent on "destabilizing" democracy and the country. Officials have also spoken of students implying they are the spoilt brats of rich parents.
Even as they denied any such thing and urged the government to stop the slurs, student leaders vowed to continue exercising their right to march in protest against a plan they argue is unlawful. They emphasized that they were active not only in Caracas but right across the country as well.
They claimed that their ultimate intention was to protect the constitution from being "usurped" by a president who they say wants to stay in office long beyond the two successive terms allowed under the constitution at present.
Chávez denies his intention is to "perpetuate" himself in power. However, he admits he'd like another 10 years in power to push through his "Bolivarian" political project.
At a press conference at the Universidad Simón Bolívar, Ronel Gaglio and other student leaders said they would go on marching with the aim of delivering the No vote at the February 15 referendum on Chávez' proposal to reform the constitution.
Chávez is on his second such term in office and will have to step down in 2012 unless he gets the constitution changed. An earlier attempt by him to get the ban lifted was rejected at a referendum in December 2007.
Critics claim this latest attempt is illegal. The Constitution stipulates that a proposal that's already been voted on in a referendum can't be submitted to a second vote during the same term of elected office.
Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), a party which initially supported Chávez after he first took elected office in early 1999 but soon crossed into opposition, rejected what it saw as the government's attempt to "criminalize popular protest."
Leonardo Padilla, a senior officer at MAS, condemned Chávez as a "traitor to the hopes of the people." The government, he asserted, was frightened of the students who were defending freedom and democracy.
Padilla airily asked out loud whether the real "Daddies' Boys" were government officials who freely spent public funds and traveled with armed bodyguards.
The Social Christian party, Copei, warned that "indefinite" re-election was in effect aimed at taking away the political opportunities of a new generation of leaders
. He questioned whether youth leaders in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had any ambitions of their own.
Skeptics have suggested that the top echelon at the PSUV is clinging to Chávez for fear that it hasn't got anybody else to lead it. Either that or they know they'd start battling each other if he were to go. At street level, party activists insist their loyalty to Chávez merely reflects their belief in him as leader.Here is the Referendum Question:
Do you approve of the widening of the political rights of Venezuelans in the terms contemplated in the amendment to articles 230, 160, 174, 192 and 162 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, processed by the National Assembly, which allows people to run for all positions of popular election in such a way that their election will be the exclusive expression of the vote of the people?
which is a loose translation of:
Â¿Aprueba usted la ampliacion de los derechos politicos de las venezolanas y los venezolanos en los terminos contemplados en la enmienda de los articulos 230, 160, 174, 192 y 162 de la Constitucion de la Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela, tramitada por la Asamblea Nacional, al permitirse la postulacion para todos los cargos de eleccion popular de modo que su eleccion sea expresion exclusiva del voto del pueblo?