There should hardly be any surprise that the lead-up to the February referendum on ending terms limits for the President of Venezuela and other officials has taken a violent turn. It follows a previous pattern which invariably began with ill-advised and aggressive utterances from Mr Chávez to his supporters. This time it was a weekend speech referring to student protest against his bid for indefinite re-election: “The streets are for the people,” he was reported by the Los Angeles Times to have said, “not the rich and the spoiled children of the rich. Spray them with gas and dissolve whatever barricades they put up.”

On Tuesday, the police followed instructions and fired rubber bullets and tear gas at Caracas students attempting to march to the Supreme Court to file a complaint about the closing of the electoral register. They had not, it must be said, secured permission for the march, and they got no distance before they encountered a barricade of the Metropolitan Police. According to VHeadline, radical government supporters on motorbikes hovered on the fringes of the demonstration, and four of these were arrested for being in possession of firearms. Other news sources gave the figure as six. When Venezuela’s Minister of  Interior made reference to the incident, he spoke only about a truck which had been held carrying more than 100 molotov cocktails, sacks of stones and a can of gasoline. The owner of the truck, he said, had rented it to students.

Whether this was genuine or not, is not clear at the moment. What is clear, however, was that the vehicle of a student leader named Ricardo Sánchez was destroyed by Molotov cocktails and home-made gas bombs reported to have been thrown by men on motorbikes.

Yesterday students were protesting more or less violently in other parts of the country as well, and one must presume that these confrontations will continue. It was students who played such a large role in the defeat of the 2007 referendum, and now that the head of state has declared the gloves are off, the radicals among their number feel free to operate in like manner. It may be exactly what the government intends – an atmosphere of violence and insecurity for which the students can be held responsible, thereby bringing the entire opposition into disrepute.

However, there have been incidents of thuggery on the part of the President’s supporters which were not directed at students. There is, for example, the occupation of the building which had functioned as City Hall for the last few years by around 40 gunmen, who announced it had been “recovered for the revolution.” This is the headquarters of the metropolitan district of Caracas, which was won by the opposition mayor, Antonio Ledezma, in the local government elections at the end of last year. The security guards in the building were tied up for eight hours, and the Mayor could not enter his office for two days. This followed Mr Chávez’s revocation of the Mayor’s authority over the Metropolitan Police, Caracas’s hospitals and sport and recreational facilities. In other words, the head of state has made it clear that he does not want Mr Ledezma to be able to function.

Apart from that incident, tear gas canisters were thrown at the house of the Papal Nuncio and near the administrative building of Caracas’s main university. VHeadline also listed the headquarters of Globovision, an opposition TV station; the home of Marcel Granier of RCTV; and the headquarters of Copei, the opposition party which once wielded such power in Venezuela and is now reduced to a shadow of its former self, as targets of the tear gas campaign. Another opposition party, Causa R, which was celebrating its anniversary on Monday, found itself under siege from hard-line chávistas on that day, and its members could not emerge from their building. The National Guard and the Metropolitan Police were there, it was reported, but they stood by and did nothing.

All of this contrasts with Mr Chávez’s campaign caravan and rally at the weekend, which came off without incident, save for the President’s inflammatory words.

The atmosphere of violence which is being created is a sign that the head of state does not feel completely confident that he will win the upcoming referendum. In fact, several polls say that he will not, although whether that will change closer to election day remains to be seen. Some opposition leaders think that in any case as a tactic it will backfire on the President, and it certainly does not appear to have helped him very much in the local government elections, where he lost key states and municipalities to his opponents. Whether it will on not, however, it is still a dangerous route, because he might not be able to put the extremist genie back into the bottle after the poll.

He has been forced to rush this referendum, because Venezuela will be facing economic difficulties sooner or later, and when those begin to have an impact on the citizens, his popularity ratings are likely to fall. Down the road he surely would not like to find himself in the same position as former President Perez, once very popular, who ended up by using major force to put down riots in Caracas after he was forced to accept IMF prescriptions because of a collapse in the oil price, among other things. It was because of those riots that Mr Chávez mounted an attempted coup and first came to public attention.

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