Student Riots Continue in Western Venezuela, Government Blames Provocateurs

Classes at the University of the Andes (ULA) were suspended again last week, as disturbances and protests continued in Merida. In response to the violence, various government representatives announced that behind the disturbances is a conspiracy to “destabilize” the country.

Caracas, Venezuela, May 30, 2006—Classes at the University of the Andes (ULA) were suspended again yesterday, as disturbances and protests continued in Merida for the fourth straight business day. In response to the violence, various government representatives announced that behind the disturbances is a conspiracy to “destabilize” the country.

The “disturbances” come as a result of last Wednesday’s Venezuelan Supreme Court decision postponing ULA student elections, which were scheduled to be held on May 31st. In its decision, the court declared that the elections would have to be postponed because there existed “rational doubts about the competence” of the University Center Federation’s ability to administer its own elections.

The Venezuelan alternative media website, Aporrea.org, reported yesterday afternoon that, “a small group of hooded individuals were throwing rocks, bottles, and other objects at a line of anti-riot Police.”

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan daily, El Mundo, reported last Friday, that various other Universities have joined in the protests, and are calling for a national demonstration tomorrow and a student march across the country. Ricardo Sánchez, general secretary of the Federation of University Centers of the Central University of Venezuela, announced yesterday that all of the Universities in Caracas would be meeting to coordinate actions in support of the ULA students.

While last week’s events are still unclear, government sources report that 26 Venezuelan National Guard and Police were wounded in the violence, many from gunshots. One officer is still in critical condition, and another testified to have just narrowly escaped a rape attempt. According to most reports, 10 students were wounded. El Mundo reported last Friday that the leader of the Somos Uno Movement from the Central University of Venezuela, Inti Rodriguez, declared that their were also a dozen students wounded at University protests in both the Venezuelan states of Tachira and Lara.

“Conspiracy of Violence”

Venezuelan Vice-President José Vicente Rangel, yesterday, condemned the existence of “preparations to generate situations of violence in the streets.”

“You can’t explain this situation only by the decision of the competent jurisdictional organism to post-pone ULA elections. This decision has nothing to do with the National Executive or the authorities from the state of Mérida,” he said. “The supposed University raid served also as a pretext to accentuate the violence.” In a press release, Rangel added, “there also exists the intention to unleash action in Caracas during the next OPEC meeting [this Thursday], with the goal of projecting to the world an image of chaos in Venezuela.”

Yesterday, the Minister of Interior and Justice, Jesse Chacón, and members of the National Assembly also denounced the student violence in Merida, and announced what they viewed as proof of a conspiracy to destabilize the country.

“These are acts of violence and sources of urban terrorism that have been unraveling by the student sector over the last hours and you should observe that all of the events connect to one another, they are interrelated and lead us to a conspiracy plan,” said National Assembly Representative, Tarek El Aissami, yesterday.

Aissami singled out the group Movimiento 13 de Marzo (March 13 Movement) and its student leader Nixon Moreno, as being behind the violence and disturbances. He accompanied his declarations with videotapes from 2004 of the March 13 Movement, which he declared contained “proof of the conviction” of the current events.

“Political Assassination”

Moreno, who was a Presidential candidate in the ULA’s postponed elections responded by accusing the state of trying to “politically assassinate” him.

“We are dealing with a dark laboratory, overseen by the Ministry of Interior and Justice (Jesse Chacón) in order to politically assassinate me,” he said yesterday. Moreno added that due to the repression of the National Guard, 25 students were left wounded.

The Venezuelan daily, El Universal, reported yesterday that Moreno, “informed that the students would continue their protests this week in response to the violation of the autonomous university, expressed, in his criteria, in the ruling of the TSJ that suspended the student elections, and in the National Guard ‘raid’ on the University.”

Moreno, who has been a ULA student for the past 10 years and is a former Student President of the ULA, blames last week’s violence, not on the students, but on the Venezuelan National Guard.

According to VTV, the Minister of Interior and Justice, Jesse Chacón, has categorically denied that the National Guard and police forces raided the ULA.

Rumors have surfaced over the possibility that last week’s violence could have been instigated by paramilitaries acting as students. The website, Rebelion.org, reported last Thursday that “a group of organized mercenaries, acting and looking more like Colombian paramilitaries than students, burst in to the Center of the Humanities Faculty, well armed with high-caliber pistols and machine guns, faces covered with ski masks… with radios of the latest technology… and dispersed throughout Merida in strategic locations, in small groups, all armed, and interconnected through the radio system.”

Astrid Balsa, an ULA student, studying languages, doesn’t buy it. “People exaggerate a lot, but there are some things that are true. I don’t believe that there are paramilitaries,” she said, “but not everyone involved in the disturbances are students. Some are hooligans, and some are teenagers from the nearby schools who just want to cause trouble.”

Balsa said that classes and activities at the ULA have been suspended since last Wednesday, and that the disturbances have caused fear and long lines across the city of Merida.

"No one is in agreement with the disturbances," Balsa continued. "It's all a question of power, regardless on who's side you are on... the problem is that the University is a reflection of what is happening in the country."

Supreme Court Decision

Last Wednesday’s Supreme Court decision to postpone the elections was as a result of an injunction presented to the court by hundreds of ULA students including the current president of the Federation de University Centers of ULA, Jehyson Jose Guzman Araque.

“We asked the Supreme Court to review the elections, to make sure that everything was legal,” said Frella Alvarez, a fourth year ULA student studying Spanish literature. “At the University, there are rules that exist, but they may or may not be enforced… the University authority hasn’t been prepared to ensure that the rules are followed.”

According to Jan Ullrich, a German exchange student studying this year at ULA, these rules outlaw re-elections, include two-year term limits, and mandate that candidates must pass at least two classes a semester.

"The rules are there to ensure that these positions are for students, who are studying... not for professional politicians," said Ullrich. "Guzman has been at the University for 10 years. One of the other guys, for 15."

According to Ullrich, that the elections were postponed until February, 2007, when new candidates would have to be named, because none of the current candidates are eligible to run for office, because they do not qualify under the rules.

Mario Bonucci, ULA Director, criticized the TSJ decision last week, declaring that the ULA electoral commission has always been in charge of elections and that the current student president, Guzman, was elected, ratified and established under the same rules and structure that are now in place.

“Of course, I shall call for peace, prudence and reflection. The University is the center where we debate with ideas not violence,” Bonucci added in response to last Wednesday’s violence, “That’s why I’m making this call for calm, tranquility and that we utilize the channels at our disposition in this democratic system.”

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