November 8, 2007 / 10:10 PM / 12 years ago

Venezuela violence stokes fears before Chavez vote

CARACAS (Reuters) - The worst political violence in months stoked fears on Thursday that clashes will dominate a referendum campaign on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s plan to scrap term limits in a raft of constitutional changes.

Venezuelan students run away from shots during clashes at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas November 7, 2007. REUTERS/Edwin Montilva

Angry accusations from pro- and anti-Chavez camps dominated the media’s airwaves and a session in Congress, with both sides blaming each other for fighting that has marred the campaign for a December 2 vote that Chavez is likely to win.

Hooded Chavez supporters shot at least two anti-Chavez students at a university in a clash on Wednesday that erupted after thousands marched through the capital calling for the vote to be postponed, witnesses and hospital officials said.

In fighting that included gunfire, teargas and stone-throwing, some pro-Chavez men were trapped in a faculty building surrounded by opponents until others burst into the campus on motorcycles, shooting in the air to rescue them.

The images, including front-page photographs of a man apparently trying to shoot a student at close range, touched nerves in the OPEC nation still scarred by clashes that sparked a brief coup against the anti-U.S. president in 2002.

E-mails circulated calling for another march on Friday and “civil disobedience” in the polarized nation.

“If we do not take action now, we will be condemned to live without democracy under a communist dictator,” read an anonymous circulated message, which have been used effectively to bring students out on the street.

But Chavez supporters were defiant too.

“If you light the fuse, be prepared to put it out, because if you don’t, we will give you a beating,” an unidentified Chavez backer said on state television.

In power since 1999, Chavez, who calls Cuban leader Fidel Castro his mentor, has vowed to rule for decades.

He wants the constitutional changes to give him more time to create a socialist state and says proposed measures to funnel funds to community councils will bolster democracy.

The opposition, the Roman Catholic Church and rights groups say the reforms are authoritarian.

But sweeteners in the package such as reducing the workday and the former paratrooper’s popularity among the majority poor should secure him a referendum win, pollsters say.

STUDENT STANDOFF

Wednesday’s shootings came days after Chavez vowed to crack down on students who last week fought running battles with security forces across Caracas in what he said was an attempt to destabilize the country and spark another coup.

Washington said it was “another indication of the kind of atmosphere that we’re — that you’re seeing in Venezuela.”

Venezuelans are sensitive to the potential for bloodshed at political marches. In 2002, Chavez survived a two-day coup after about 20 people were shot dead in violence that prompted some in the military to move against the president.

Chavez, who is popular for spending an oil bonanza on clinics and schools for the poor, easily won re-election after a campaign a year ago that was generally free of violence.

But when he shut down the last nationwide opposition TV station in May, a student movement sprang up against his decision and weeks-long protests were sometimes violent.

With opposition political parties showing little sign of attracting much support among the poor, the students have mounted the most high-profile challenge to Chavez.

Off limits to security forces by law, universities are among the last institutions to have avoided Chavez’s control.

The head of the university involved in Thursday’s violence said he would not give Chavez grounds to send in troops.

“We will not fall into the trap,” Eleazar Narvaez said. “The weapons we use are ideas, not guns.”

Additional reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel in Caracas and Paul Eckert in Washington

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