Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered police on Saturday to use tear gas on anti-government protests that block roads, heating up a campaign for a referendum that could allow him to run for re-election.
Venezuelans will vote next month on a proposed change to the constitution that would allow Chavez, a foe of the US, to seek re-election when his term ends in four years.
In 2007, voters rejected a package of political reforms that would have allowed him to run again for the top office.
Small groups of students in gas masks and wielding plastic shields protested the proposal this week. They threw stones at police, blocked a highway and were accused of setting fire to a national park. Chavez said police on his orders used tear gas to disperse the protest.
Chavez said the protest was part of a US-backed plan to destabilize the oil-exporting nation ahead of the referendum.
On Saturday, he told security forces to use gas and water cannons at the first sign of trouble.
“Interior Ministry, spray them with gas and dissolve any disturbance. We cannot begin showing weakness as a government,” Chavez said during a campaign meeting at a historic Venezuelan battleground.
Popular for raising the living standards of poor Venezuelans, Chavez has governed for a decade but says he needs 10 more years to extend social reforms in one of the US’ main oil suppliers.
Polls last month showed the new proposal had about 40 percent support, although pollsters expect that to rise.
Chavez frequently lashes out at opponents and the US during election campaigns. He tries to motivate supporters with the idea enemies are planning his overthrow.
On Saturday, the leftist leader said US president-elect Barack Obama encouraged Venezuela’s opposition to remove him, saying Obama called him an obstacle to progress in Latin America.
Last week, Chavez threatened to expel a US diplomat he accused of meeting with opposition leaders in Puerto Rico. The US embassy denies the meeting.
Relations with the US have worsened since a brief 2002 coup against Chavez that was initially welcomed by Washington. In September, Chavez expelled the US ambassador to Venezuela.
In related news, a media watchdog group is expressing concern over the killing of a Venezuelan journalist.
Reporters Without Borders says Orel Zambrano may have been targeted for his coverage of drug trafficking cases, one of which implicated a powerful Venezuelan family.
The group said on Saturday in a statement that Zambrano was heading to a movie rental store when two men on a motorcycle gunned him down in Carabobo State.
Prosecutors are investigating.