Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Caracas on Saturday to oppose a constitutional amendment that could allow Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely.
Marchers waved the nation’s flag and peered through glasses framed by the word “No” to encourage people to vote against ending term limits for all elected officials in a referendum next Sunday backed by Venezuela’s socialist leader.
“Everything’s gotten worse,” said Yraiber Davila, a 24-year-old mechanical engineer who complained of rampant crime, a lack of government services and the difficulty of buying a house with annual inflation running at 31 percent. “I have a 10-year-old daughter and she’s never seen another president.”
One protester carried a sign depicting Chavez as TV tough-guy Mr T — complete with a Mohawk hairstyle and long, feathery earrings — beneath the phrase: “Indefinite Aggression.”
Marchers chanted and wore emblems saying “No is no,” a reference to a failed 2007 referendum that would have scrapped term limits and expanded Chavez’s power. Chavez was first elected in 1998 and is barred under the current Constitution from running again when his term expires in 2012.
Polls show Chavez gaining momentum before the vote.
Approval for the amendment stood at 51 percent last month — up from 38 percent a month earlier — the independent Venezuelan firm Datanalisis reported. The poll of 1,300 likely voters had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
Chavez’s supporters say he needs to stay in power to oversee the completion of his socialist project, which they say has given the poor access to affordable food, education and healthcare.
But Ignacio Martinez, a 19-year-old economics student at the Metropolitan University in Caracas, said he believes allowing one person to stay in power for too long breeds corruption.
“A just and efficient democracy can’t develop,” Martinez said.
While the march was largely peaceful, a group of four or five Chavez supporters attacked some straggling protesters as they began to march — punching them and burning their protest signs.
On Saturday, Chavez disowned groups of violent supporters, lamenting that they have enabled critics to accuse him of condoning violence.
Chavez has positioned himself as the alternative to widespread violence, while accusing opposition leaders and student groups of trying to throw the country into chaos and planning riots if he wins.
“We are the guarantee of peace,” he told backers in a poor neighborhood.
But some of his supporters, including a group called “La Piedrita,” have claimed responsibility for recent violent attacks — including tear gassing the offices of opposition-aligned media and the Vatican.
On Friday, the Venezuelan weekly newspaper Quinto Dia published an interview with the group’s leader, Valentin Santana — which was posted on the paper’s Web site, but could not be accessed without a subscription.
The article quoted Santana as saying he would “pass through the opposition with arms,” including Marciel Granier, head of opposition-aligned television station RCTV.
Santana also claimed responsibility for recent tear gas attacks on broadcaster Globovision, a Caracas cultural center, offices of the Vatican and at least one journalist’s house, the posting said.
“Nobody here can threaten anybody with death and take justice in their own hands,” Chavez said on Satruday.