CARACAS - The polarization between supporters and foes of President Hugo Chávez poses a threat to human rights in Venezuela, and has resulted in at least 71 deaths since the last quarter of 2001, the human rights group Provea stated Tuesday.
The opposition has the right to hold demonstrations and to declare a strike, but the government must guarantee access to food and to free transit, said Provea (Venezuelan Program of Education-Action on Human Rights), which issues an annual report on the country's human rights record every Dec 10, on International Human Rights Day.
On Tuesday, the ninth day of a general strike demanding that Chávez step down or call early elections, fuel supplies improved after soldiers were sent out to run several pumping stations. But there were shortages of milk, juice and the most widely consumed canned foods.
Supporters of President Hugo Chavez shout and bang pots and pans during a rally around the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec. 9, 2002. At upper left is a poster of Chavez. A general strike against Chavez has increased pressure on Chavez to give in to opposition demands to call a referendum on his government or resign.(AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Provea and 10 other local human rights organizations stated that a solution to the political turmoil would require the use of ''the democratic mechanism par excellence: the popular referendum.''
In their statement, they also urged the public ''to ignore any calls to violence.''
The proposal by the rights groups coincided with the demand set forth by the organizers of the work stoppage -- the country's leading trade union and business association as well as 34 opposition groups linked together in the Democratic Coordinator -- for a February 2003 referendum on whether Chávez should stay in office until the end of his term, in 2006.
But as the days go by and the strike drags on, with a slowdown in the oil industry, the backbone of the economy of this South American nation of 24 million, the clamor for the president to immediately resign has grown louder.
Thousands of government supporters and opposition protesters have been holding street demonstrations in Venezuela's main cities and outside the country's oil industry installations since the strike started.
''We are still in time to see what solution we can build, but we are facing a risk of violence,'' warned the head of Provea, Carlos Correa.
Last Friday, three opposition demonstrators were shot and killed in a Caracas plaza.
Of the 71 deaths documented by the report, 61 occurred in April under the circumstances surrounding the frustrated coup d'etat that removed Chávez from power for two days and the demonstrations that swept him back to the presidency with the help of loyal factions of the military.
Six occurred in other incidents in Caracas, and four involved rural activists who were murdered by hired thugs.
Late Monday, five private TV stations in Caracas and five in other cities were surrounded for several hours by hundreds of Chávez followers who complained at what they described as biased coverage of the strike by the anti-government media outlets.
In Caracas there was no physical violence, but furniture and equipment were destroyed in three of the stations in other cities.
The incidents were immediately condemned by Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General César Gaviria, who is coordinating the so-far fruitless talks between the government and opposition.
''I want to express my most vigorous condemnation of these acts, which pose a grave danger to freedom of expression in Venezuela,'' said Gaviria, who was in a meeting with private TV station executives when the acts of vandalism occurred.
''The media have the right to follow an editorial line, but not to distort the facts according to that line,'' said Correa. ''Citizens have the right to demonstrate, but not to attack. The only solution is dialogue, to change the attitudes of the media and the demonstrators.''
Liliana Ortega, a human rights activist with the Committee of Family Members of Victims of the Events of February and March 1989 -- when dozens were killed in rioting against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez and the subsequent repression known as the 'Caracazo' -- described the siege of the TV stations as ''outrageous.''
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has issued protective measures to journalists and other media workers in Venezuela, she pointed out.
''I don't know if any Venezuelan government official is aware of what it means to disregard those provisional measures issued by the Inter-American Court,'' said Ortega.
''The last time they were disregarded was under the regime of (former Peruvian president) Alberto Fujimori, and we all know what happened to him,'' she added, referring to his removal by Congress in 2000.
Reporters, print and broadcast media executives and publicists meeting Tuesday in Caracas declared themselves ''in a state of emergency due to the continuous attacks by the government, which last night functioned as part of a coordinated plan,'' in the words of their spokeswoman Ivéyise Pacheco, director of the Caracas tabloid Así Es.
Nicolás Maduro, the leader of the ruling Fifth Republic Movement, the president's party, deplored the acts of vandalism, but said ''the demonstrations outside the TV stations were protests by people who are tired of nine days of negative news about President Chávez.''
Correa said the conflict includes ''a grave problem of the failure to recognize 'the other'.
''When the government and the opposition talk about 'the people', they are referring to the sector of the population that is on their side, and the absence of agreements is fanning the flames of the violence,'' he said.
A referendum that would help ease tempers and curb the violence ''must be the product of an agreement among the parties involved, and not the absolute imposition by one of them,'' stated Provea.
The rights organization said a referendum would have to be overseen by electoral authorities that were trusted by both sides, and would require the presence of international observers and commitments by the media to cover the entire spectrum of opinions and views.
But ''above and beyond a referendum, the social inclusion of the excluded majorities is a vital component of the deepening of democracy,'' stressed Provea.
''The adoption of progressive measures with respect to economic, social and cultural human rights must also form part of the accords reached by the parties to the conflict,'' it added.
Copyright 2002 IPS