CARACAS - Street violence in the last four days has reached the middle class residential areas of Venezuela's big cities, where the angry foes of the Hugo Chavez government clash with the military as they protest in demand of a presidential recall referendum.
"We have run out of patience. They robbed us of our signatures (gathered for the referendum) and we will not put up with any more tricks," Mara Solrzano, a housewife from El Cafetal, of residential southeast Caracas, told IPS while she brought rubbish for a giant bonfire to prevent vehicle access to her neighborhood.
A few meters away, dozens of residents shouted slogans and insults, waving flags and banging on empty cooking pots. "We haven't been able to go to work and we can't send the kids to school. We can lose a day, but let's not lose the country," said Arturo Martinez, who works in a shop that sells household appliances.
An opponent of President Hugo Chavez's government fires stones with a slingshot during a demostration in Caracas on Monday. Venezuela's election commission has postponed until Tuesday announcing whether a recall referendum against Chavez will be held. (AFP/Rodrigo Arangua)
"If Chavez wants war, he's going to get it," a young man named Reinaldo, who did not want to give his age, told IPS. He and other adolescents were trying to break up the bricks in the sidewalk next to Altamira Plaza -- symbolic bastion of the opposition -- in order to have projectiles to throw at the nearby barricade set up by the National Guard (militarized police).
Since Feb. 27, throughout four days and part of the nights, the barricades and the clashes have shaken up the routines of a dozen middle-class districts in Caracas, and also in parts of the western cities of Maracaibo, Barquisimeto, Valencia and San Cristbal.
The opposition is protesting because the National Electoral Council (CNE, an independent government body), voted by a 3-2 majority to place in question hundreds of thousands of signatures gathered in December to petition for a referendum on whether Chavez should remain in office.
If the questionable signatures are discarded, the opposition would not have enough for the CNE to convene a referendum, under the requirements laid out in the constitution.
The CNE doubts that those signatures are legitimate, and the ones already deemed valid are less than the 2.4 million (20 percent of the electorate) required for convening a referendum.
The Council said it will give voters the opportunity this month to confirm whether or not they signed the original petition.
But the opposition coalition known as the Democratic Coordinator says the move is a scam that violates the good faith of the signatories.
A march in defense of the signatures drew thousands of anti-Chavez protesters Friday, Feb. 27, in Caracas, and the front lines of the demonstration crossed the security perimeter that had been erected to protect the heads of state and officials gathered for the summit of the Group of 15 (G15) developing countries.
The National Guard pushed back those groups with tear gas and plastic bullets, and confrontations spread to several streets throughout the city, and adjacent residential areas -- home to many participants in the opposition marches -- turning them into centers of chaos.
Two people died from gunshot wounds, one a Chavez supporter and the other a member of the opposition, and dozens of people were injured, several of them by bullets.
The government and the opposition blame each other for fomenting violence and for the deaths and injuries.
According to the opposition, the culprits are members of the National Guard and the governmental police force, while the government says the ones to blame are the police who are under the command of the anti-Chavez municipal governments in various parts of the Caracas metropolitan area.
Two international journalists were shot. Cameraman Felipe Izquierdo, of the U.S.-based Spanish language TV network Univision, received a bullet in the foot, and Juan Barreto, photographer for the French news agency AFP, was shot in the hand and in the abdomen.
"A young man who was in the opposition group shot me in the chest with a 9mm pistol. Fortunately, my bullet-proof vest saved me," Barreto told IPS.
Gen. Julio Quintero, chief of the Venezuelan Armed Forces Unified Command, said Monday: "We will maintain our presence until the municipal leaders, the mayors, take control of the situation. We will impose order and we will uphold the constitution and the law."
On Sunday, Chavez convened some 150,000 followers, coming from different parts of the country, along the main highway through Caracas. He announced to the crowd that he would maintain a firm hand.
"I am not going to tolerate disorder or anarchy," said the president.
Chavez accused the metropolitan police of Caracas, under the authority of opposition mayor Alfredo Pea, and other municipal forces of providing protection for the violent protesters.
"If it is necessary to intervene (in those police forces) with armored tanks, I will do so. I have already given the orders," he said.
Sunday's rally was a protest against U.S. intervention, because Chavez maintains that the opposition is guided by the dictates of Washington, and trying to repeat the coup d'tat that removed him from power for two days in April 2002.
Chavez's speech was the harshest he has made yet against his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush. He said that if Washington interferes in Venezuelan politics against him, not one drop of Venezuelan petroleum will go to the United States.
Currently, Venezuela exports 1.5 million barrels of oil to the U.S. market daily.
Chavez also suggested the possibility of U.S. military intervention, and said that in such a case there would be enough mountain, enough jungle, enough savannah, enough dignity and also enough guts to confront an attack.
The leader of the Democratic Coordinator, Enrique Mendoza, ignored Chavez's warnings and called on the Venezuelan people to express their discontent all week long in all cities, though he did not mention Caracas, where opposition groups continued to block traffic and clash with the armed forces.
Protesters have painted the streets, sidewalks and walls with the number 350, in reference to the final article of the 1999 constitution -- promoted by Chavez himself -- that permits disregard for laws and the authorities when they violate human rights.
"The people of Venezuela...will ignore any regimen, legislation or authority that violates the democratic values, principles or guarantees or undermines human rights," states the constitution.
Army units have begun to reinforce the presence of the National Guard as the troops try to clear the main routes through Caracas that have been blocked by opposition groups.
Opposition leaders are urging the CNE to send for repair the petitions in which the personal information about the signatories appear in similar handwriting, though different from the signatures, which led the electoral authorities to doubt their authenticity.
The CNE is looking for a formula to rectify the situation based on proposals from the Organization of American States and from the U.S.-based Carter Center for Peace, which have been monitoring all phases of the process. On Monday the Carter Center pulled out of Venezuela.
The opposition is divided about whether to accept a CNE offer for clarifying the signatures.
© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service