Venezuelan troops use tear gas and water cannons to break up protest of Chavez reforms
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Soldiers used tear gas, plastic bullets and water cannons to scatter tens of thousands of people who massed Thursday to protest constitutional reforms that would permit Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely.
Led by university students, protesters chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" and warned that 69 amendments drafted by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly would violate civil liberties and derail democracy.
It was the biggest turnout against Chavez in months, and appeared to revive Venezuela's languid opposition at a time when the president seems as strong as ever. Students promised more street demonstrations over the weekend, but no opposition-led protests were planned for today.
"This is a dictatorship masked as democracy," said Jorge Rivas, an 18-year-old student. "Chavez wants our country to be like Cuba, and we're not going to allow that to occur."
Authorities broke up the protest outside the electoral agency's office, reporting no arrests or serious injuries. But the local Globovision television network ran video of several students who suffered minor injuries and images of police beating an unarmed protester.
Students hurled rocks and bottles, and a few lifted up sections of metal barricades and thrust them against police holding riot shields. Students retreated later when police fired plastic bullets.
Rock-throwing clashes between students and Chavez supporters continued at a nearby university campus.
"Chavez wants to remain in power his entire life, and that's not democracy," said Gonzalo Rommer, a 20-year-old student who joined protesters marching to the National Elections Council.
Deputy Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami blamed students for the violence, saying they forced their way through police barricades.
But Vicente Diaz, one of the National Election Council's five directors, accused National Guardsmen and police of using excessive force to disperse protesters. "We absolutely condemn the behavior of the authorities," Diaz said.
The amendments would give the government control over the Central Bank, create new types of cooperative property, allow authorities to detain citizens without charge during a state of emergency and extend presidential terms from six to seven years while allowing Chavez to run again in 2012.
Opposition parties, human rights groups and representatives of the Roman Catholic Church fear civil liberties would be severely weakened under the constitutional changes.
Chavez, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, denies the reforms threaten civil liberties.
He and his supporters say the changes will help move the country toward socialism, while giving neighborhood-based assemblies more decision-making power in using government funds for local projects like paving streets and building public housing.