November 23, 2001
From: NY Times, "Venezuelan Demonstrators Attacked by Government Loyalists"
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 22 (Reuters) — Riot police officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas today at hundreds of supporters of President Hugo Chávez who attacked some 2,000 antigovernment demonstrators on the streets of the capital.
Several people were injured in skirmishes around the National Assembly building. The city police struggled to separate about 300 government loyalists from demonstrators carrying placards reading "Chávez Out."
During lulls in the clashes, rival factions squared off on street corners in downtown Caracas, throwing rocks or bottles, while a water cannon prowled the area to disperse the throng.
At least three people were struck on the head by flying bottles and required medical attention, witnesses said.
Similar clashes occurred two weeks ago when supporters of Mr. Chávez battled their opponents on the streets of the capital after a demonstration deteriorated into violence.
Recent polls have shown the popularity of Mr. Chávez, a former paratroop officer, falling below 50 percent as many voters tire of his failure to deliver on campaign promises to tackle poverty, corruption and crime. The approval rating of the president, whose term expires in 2007, topped 80 percent after he took office three years ago.
But his "revolutionary" government has faced a wave of criticism recently — from the Roman Catholic Church, the media, unions, the United States and political parties — for its authoritarian style and animosity toward the private sector.
Mr. Chávez has insisted that drastic measures are necessary to oust the entrenched elites that have run Venezuela, the world's No. 4 oil exporter, since the country's last dictator was toppled in 1958.
The demonstration today was called by Venezuela's largest opposition party, the centrist Democratic Action, to protest the president's use of special legislative powers to decree far-reaching economic changes without consultation.
"Our principal weapon is our right to demonstrate against this pitiful situation which is dragging Venezuela through the dirt, humiliated and discredited not only at home but abroad as well," said Henry Ramos, a Democratic Action politician.
The march quickly deteriorated into chaos as supporters of Mr. Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement tried to block its passage toward Congress. Stores closed as tear gas filled the streets, and the metropolitan police, controlled by the opposition mayor, Alfredo Pena, fired on the government loyalists.
"We are protesting against this march," said Felipe Mundarain, 53, his leg bloodied by a rubber bullet wound. "We are Chávez followers and the police are opening fire on us.
"They are shooting at ordinary Venezuelans," he said.
Interior Minister Luis Miquelena dismissed the demonstration as insignificant and said the Chávez supporters who attacked it were not members of the Fifth Republic Movement. He criticized Mr. Pena, one of President Chávez's sternest opponents, for using the police against the crowds.
The metropolitan police chief, Henry Vivas, defended the actions of his force, saying, "It is preferable sometimes to throw a tear gas canister rather than pick up a dead body from the floor."