November 08, 2007
At least nine people were hurt -- two were shot -- after armed groups attacked Caracas students returning from an anti-Chávez march.
Violence that has rocked universities across Venezuela in recent days hit the capital Wednesday, when armed groups invaded the campus of the Central University, leaving at least nine people injured, two of them with gunshot wounds, according to university authorities.
There were no confirmed deaths late Wednesday.
The violence broke out as students were returning from a massive march to the Supreme Court in which they demanded the postponement of a referendum, scheduled for Dec. 2, on changes to the country's constitution and increased power to President Hugo Chávez. Among other things, the reform would remove term limits on the presidency.
The march itself, attended by an estimated 80,000, passed peacefully, and student leaders were received by Supreme Court President Luisa Estela Morales.
But by mid-afternoon there were scenes of chaos at the university -- known as the UCV, its acronym in Spanish -- as groups of men, many of them hooded, fired guns, set off tear-gas grenades and hurled stones.
University authorities and various media reports said the violence appeared to have been the work of Chávez supporters, who had previously threatened dire consequences if opposition students and the private media -- whom they described as ''fascists'' -- continued to ''destabilize'' the country.
At a rally Sunday, the president himself threatened the students, whom he called ''rich kids.'' If he and his supporters responded in kind, Chávez said, ``there wouldn't be a building standing belonging to this unpatriotic oligarchy.''
In a brief statement broadcast on Venezuelan radio and television Wednesday night, Interior Minister Pedro Carreño blamed the students.
Dressed in the red shirt of the president's Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, Carreño said the students had returned ''disappointed'' from a march in which they ''thought they would set the country on fire'' and had attacked a group of pro-Chávez students.
More than 100 people had been confined to the social work faculty building, ''on the point of being lynched'' by the anti-Chávez students, the minister said. He called on the opposition to ''return to the democratic fold.'' His remarks were greeted by widespread banging of pots and pans in some parts of the capital.
The National Guard troops gathered outside the university but had not intervened as of Wednesday night.
Higher Education Minister Luis Acuña told state-controlled television that the authorities were willing to put a stop to the violence if the UCV's authorities requested it. Venezuelan law bars state security forces from entering the campus unless university authorities request it.
Some South Florida Venezuelans grimly predicted that the campus clash was just the beginning.
''The violence is part of Chávez's efforts to repress and scare the Venezuelans, because through it he's letting everyone know what is to come,'' said Patricia Andrade, head of the Miami-based human rights organization Venezuelan Awareness Foundation. ``What is coming is very, very serious.''
The shootings, Andrade said, were part of a strategy by Chávez to exert more control over universities, which serve as a strong base for the opposition.
''The government is creating chaos in the universities so that they will have an excuse to invade them,'' Andrade said. ``Wars are begun by the ones with the weapons, and the students don't have weapons -- all they have is book bags.''
The mood had become increasingly tense since Venezuela's legislature -- almost unanimously -- gave final approval last week to a sweeping package of extensive constitutional changes that include the indefinite reelection of presidents, the establishment of socialism as Venezuela's official ideology and a reduction of the working day to six hours.
Outbursts have occurred elsewhere.
Last week, clashes erupted after a student march to the headquarters of the electoral authority. But most incidents in recent days have involved universities in the interior, ranging from Zulia, Táchira and Mérida states in the west to Lara and Carabobo in the center of the country.
Dozens of students have been injured, including several who have suffered gunshot wounds and many hurt by birdshot fired by the national guard.
A journalism student was shot dead at the University of Zulia in an incident that has yet to be clarified, and which the government has said is unconnected to national student protests.
The protesters have called for a suspension of the referendum, charging that amendments would weaken civil liberties in one of South America's oldest democracies and give Chávez unprecedented power to declare states of emergency, the Associated Press reported. Students also have argued that the electorate still does not know what it will be voting on, not least because the Assembly made dozens of last-minute additions.
''Don't allow Venezuela to go down a path that nobody wants to cross,'' student leader Freddy Guevara told Globovisión, according to AP.
Chávez, who was first elected in 1998, has brushed off criticism and denied that the reforms threaten freedom. He has said the changes would move Venezuela closer to what he calls ``21st century socialism.''
Miami Herald staff writer Casey Woods contributed to this report.