November 09, 2007
The day after nine students were attacked on a Caracas campus, opponents of Hugo Chávez predicted that more violence is coming.
Several dozen students congregated in front of a charred school door at the Central University of Venezuela on Thursday, sweeping up broken glass and blaming opponents of President Hugo Chávez for an outbreak of violence the day before that left nine students injured.
A quarter of a mile away, hundreds of other students occupied the university's main plaza and blamed the violence on Chávez and his supporters.
Even as the university's top official pleaded for calm Thursday, both sides said they expected more violence and vowed not to back down.
Student leaders prepared for yet another march on Saturday, this time against violence.
''They're armed; we're not,'' said Frank Alvarez, a fifth-year law student who was visiting the campus from Santa María University, also in Caracas. Asked if he was scared, Alvarez replied, ``If the Liberator, Simón Bolívar, had been afraid, we wouldn't be free today.''
A growing climate of tension, fear and confrontation seems to be gripping Venezuela as the campaign kicks into high gear to determine whether Venezuelans on Dec. 2 will approve Chávez's effort to rewrite the Constitution.
Supporters of the referendum -- including students -- say it would accelerate Chávez's push to put more money in the pockets of the poor and give them more chances to advance.
Opponents -- students among them -- say it would allow Chávez to further consolidate his power and lead the country down the ruined road of socialism. For now, their strategy is mobilizing supporters to the streets.
The proposal would, among other things, abolish term limits for Chávez, reduce the work day to six hours, give the state greater control over key sectors of the economy and formally give the president control of the Central Bank.
Only a month ago, political commentators said Chávez would have little trouble winning the changes and handing yet another defeat to his political opponents.
But the president's former defense minister provided a political shock when he warned Monday that passage of the so-called ''constitutional reform'' would amount to a coup d'etat.
And student leaders have organized two large anti-Chávez marches during the past week in Caracas, including Wednesday's demonstration where 80,000 people denounced the constitutional reform peacefully until hooded men riding on motorbikes invaded the Central University, known as the UCV. The men fired pistols and launched tear gas on students returning from the march.
The government is not known to have made any arrests.
Two students wounded by gunfire remained hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
The university campus was filled with students returning to class Thursday. But much of the focus was on the previous day's clash. Nearly everyone seemed to think that the question wasn't if violence would break out again, only when.
And students were on edge.
''The violent ones are coming now!'' student leader Eduardo Torres yelled at one point Thursday in UCV's main plaza. It turned out to be a false alarm.
But anti-referendum students said they would not back down.
''We won't cede an inch,'' said Stalin González, the president of the UCV students' association.
The pro-Chávez students were as determined as their opponents to stand firm.
''A revolutionary is never afraid,'' Andazola said as a government supporter arrived with fresh copies of a 75-page pamphlet titled, ''Now the battle is for the yes position.'' It lays out the need for the referendum, article by article.
''This is like gold,'' Candido Nieves, a third-year law student and Chávez supporter said as he held up the new book, which featured Chávez on the cover, wearing a suit and the presidential sash.
''He's the leader of all Latin America,'' chimed in Andazola.
''Fatherland! Socialism or Death! We will win!'' added Nieves, espousing a favorite Chávez line borrowed from Cuba's Fidel Castro.