By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The campaign leading up to a referendum on President Hugo Chávez' proposed constitutional reform to allow for repeated re-election is descending into dirty tricks and other dubious conduct with both sides blaming the other.
Rowdy men dressed in trademark Chávez red shirts broke into a discussion forum on the planned reform at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas on Wednesday. Their intent was clear: to prevent the meeting, which was attended by several prominent opposition figures, from going ahead.
Fists were thrown, scuffles broke out and insults were exchanged as the intruders accused opposition Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma of "assassinating" students. They claimed they were students and that officers from the Chacao municipal police force had barred them from entering, and that they were making a peaceful protest.
The incident, which was reported to have ended without major upset, was the latest in a string of episodes during or on the fringes of public meetings and marches against the president's proposal.
The State Prosecutors Office announced that 12 students in Aragua state had been charged with possessing and using "explosive substances" during a demonstration on Monday night near the Instituto Universitario Tecnológico Antonio Ricuarte (Iutar) in Cagua.
Police claimed to have found 12 Molotov Cocktail homemade bombs and 50 blocks of cement in the students' possession. They were freed on conditional liberty under an order to present themselves before court every 30 days.
In Maturín, capital of Monagas state in eastern Venezuela, several people were arrested on orders from Governor José Gregorio Briceño of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) during an anti-reform demonstration on Tuesday.
The detainees included Wilfredo Febres, the leader in the state of the opposition party, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and three student representatives. Briceño came under criticism for ordering state police to stop the demonstration by force, even though the right to assemble is deemed lawful during election campaigns.
Four students were injured by rubber bullets, others were beaten by officers and tear gas was fired. Febres said he was held in custody on orders of the Monagas state police chief even though he was seriously ill after an attack of "hypertension" during the disorder.
Reports reaching Caracas said Febres and the others were later released after being told they would be charged with obstructing a public highway. This, too, was deemed dubious given the electoral circumstances of the demonstration.
Chávez' critics put the blame for the escalating violence in general, and the use of the heavy hand in particular, squarely on the president's shoulders after he ordered security forces to use tear gas "and well" against people protesting him.
Subsequent events have prompted warnings that some officers seem all too inclined to follow the presidential order with a will far beyond their remit to maintain public order.
Tomás Hernández, secret
ary of the students' representative council at Universidad Carlos Andrés Bello in Caracas reiterated earlier claims that the government was trying to "disorientate" the referendum campaign by accusing students of causing violence.
Like other student leaders, he vowed that the demonstrations would continue, not least to ensure that momentum was maintained for the No vote. "If we don't carry this struggle against indefinite re-election, nobody else is going to do it," he declared.
Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami announced that he would seek an investigation of the conduct of National Guard troops after violence near the campus of the Universidad Experimental del Táchira (Unet) on Tuesday.
El Aissami said his aim was to clear the guardsmen of accusations that they'd intruded upon the campus, and hence violating the traditional autonomy of universities in Venezuela. Shopkeepers went on strike in protest against Chávez' presence in Táchira.
Trouble was also reported at the Universidad de Los Andes in the state capital, San Cristóbal, with three students injured by rubber bullets during a demonstration intended to make the same point. Táchira is one of three states that switched to the opposition at last November's elections.
In the capital, a tear gas canister was thrown at the Law Faculty on the campus of the private Universidad Santa María on Tuesday evening. Suspicion focused on La Piedrita, a shadowy group of hard line government supporters who've been linked with similar attacks in the past.
La Piedrita is the object of growing public concern and pressure for the authorities to take action to rein in their thuggish behavior. To date, the authorities have taken no visible action against the group, even though it's claimed officials are aware of the identities of at least some of them.
Carlos Sierra, president of the Bolivarian Students Federation of Venezuela (FBE) and a member of the PSUV, accused former Chacao mayor Leopoldo López and other opposition figures of visiting university campuses to stir up violence.
Others accused by Sierra included Andrés Velásquez of Causa R, whose anniversary ceremony at the cultural center, El Ateneo, was ambushed by a group of hard line Chávez supporters, Ismael Garcia of Podemos, the social democratic party which crossed to the opposition in protest against Chávez' previous bid to lift the limit on re-election, and the dissident former defense minister, Raúl Isaías Baduel.
The forum at UCV was completely overshadowed by the attempt to disrupt it. Apart from Ledezma, the meeting was attended by the mayors of all four Caracas municipalities now under opposition control. The only mayor missing was Jorge Rodríguez of the Libertador municipality. He hails from Chavez' PSUV.
In his remarks at the forum, Ledezma said the No campaign wasn't out to depict Chávez as an enemy because many of the president's supporters weren't in sympathy with the re-election plan.
That issue, Ledezma continued, had already been debated and rejected at the December 2007 referendum. What should now be under debate was insecurity, health and the universities, he said.
Mayor Gerardo Blyde of Baruta in south Caracas argued that the National Electoral Council (CNE) should have rejected the single question to be put at the referendum because it wasn't clear or precise. Changing the constitution to accommodate the president's proposal will involve amending no less than five separate Articles.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?