Venezuelan college students continued their protests Nov. 8 despite armed attacks on protesters at various universities ahead of a controversial referendum Dec. 2. Though the protests show little sign of letting up and enjoy support from the Roman Catholic Church and at least some military elements, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is in a good position to deal with the threat to his rule.
University students in Caracas protested Nov. 8 against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, just one day after masked gunmen attacked students in the Venezuelan capital returning from a demonstration, injuring at least eight people. The Central University of Venezuela (UCV) would not confirm whether anyone had died. Five students were also injured during protests by plainclothes gunmen in the northwestern city of Barquisimeto on Nov. 7. The Nov. 7 shootings were not the first of their kind. At least one female student died and two others were seriously injured at the University of Zulia on Nov. 2 when armed men fired from a moving vehicle upon a group of protesting students. A deadly shooting also occurred Nov. 2 at the University of Lara, according to an unconfirmed report. Chavista elements aiming to quell student protests through intimidation tactics likely carried out these attacks. And though the protests probably will continue and could appeal to a wider audience, Chavez has had a long time to prepare for just this sort of situation. The tactics have met with varying levels of success. While some major student groups like the Federation of Student Centers at UCV have called off protest marches in the interest of protecting students in the wake of the shootings, others have continued to hold marches and to face off with government troops. Overall, the protests against Chavez still show little sign of easing as the country heads towards an extremely controversial Dec. 2 referendum. At stake are a slew of constitutional reforms that would reinforce Chavez's grip on power, including provisions for the elimination of presidential term limits, for curbs on press freedoms and for extraordinary arrests during emergency rule in the name of the "Bolivarian Revolution." Though Chavez's constitutional reform campaign has galvanized the country's university students, prompting them to take to the streets despite threats of violence, the protest movement still lacks enough heft to challenge the Chavez regime seriously. For regime change to take place in Caracas, the student activists need the support of the Roman Catholic Church and the poor — who comprise a majority in Venezuela — to break through Chavez's lines of defense. The church has joined the students. But the impoverished masses still lack an incentive to join the opposition — and with oil prices soaring, Chavez has enough cash to buy their political support. That leaves the military's loyalties as the remaining question. Some sparks from the military establishment flew over Chavez's reforms Nov. 6 when retired Defense Minister Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel called on Venezuelans to vote "no" to the Dec. 2 referendum. Chavez subsequently branded Baduel a traitor. Baduel is an old friend of Chavez who helped restore the Venezuelan president to power after a brief coup in 2002. For a member of Chavez's inner circle to break so publicly with the Venezuelan leader is a worrying sign for Chavez's ability to hold things together. But Chavez has long prepared for such eventualities with the buildup of his personal militias, and so far it does not look as if Baduel has enough support within the military to turn the tide against Chavez.