Venezuela: massive show of support for reforms

student protests two weeks ago against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms, more than 50,000 students marched in favour of the reforms in Caracas on November 22. The reforms aim to facilitate the massive deepening of the revolutionary process lead by the Chavez government that has already made significant inroads into reducing poverty, in order to open the transition to a 'socialism of the 21st Century". The reforms, which have been widely debated throughout society and have been adopted by the National Assembly, will be put to a referendum on December 2.

The rally was held on the 'Day of the Students' and also commemorated 50 years since the 1957 student uprising that led to the downfall of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.

Students gathered in Plaza Venezuela at 10am, with Cesar Trompiz, a student leader from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) — created by the Chavez government to grant free access to university to poor students previously excluded — announced that the aim of the march was to say, "Yes to the reforms, yes to the revolution and yes to President Chavez".

The march was festive and peaceful as it wound its way through the streets of Caracas. Students danced and sang "Yes, yes, yes to the reforms!" and "Yes, yes, yes — the hour of the people, the hour of the poor!"

Supporters waved flags and posters from high-rise apartment blocks, and workers on a construction site downed tools and cheered and danced the salsa on the scaffolding as the students went by. An incident where an opposition supporter hung a "No" sign out the window of an office building was met with laughter and chants of "They will not return" — a reference to the old pro-capitalist parties that governed Venezuela prior to Chavez.

Three thousand students also joined the march from the School of Social Work at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), where on November 7, opposition students had trapped 123 Chavista students for several hours, threatening to lynch them, throwing rocks and chairs, smashing windows and attempting to set fire to the building. Internationally, the corporate media turned reality on its head and claimed it was Chavista students attacking opponents of Chavez.

Thousands of high school students also marched in support of a reform that would lower the voting age to 16, which Trompiz explained was a proposal introduced by the student movement, "and another reason to celebrate".

The march finally arrived at Miraflores (the presidential palace) at 5pm, and students flooded the grounds to hear from Chavez. Referring to the 1957 student uprising, Chavez said "In the 50s the students rose up against the president, but today they are in Miraflores with the president because this government belongs to you all, this power belongs not to Chavez, but to the people".

"Here is the demonstration that the Venezuelan students are with the revolution … you students are the fuel of the revolution." Chavez argued that the constitutional reforms are for the future, and necessary to deepen the transition to socialism.

The reforms will enshrine the right to free university education in the constitution and proposed changes to article 109 will also give students and workers voting parity with academic staff for elections of university authorities. Hector Sosa, a UBV student, said the proposed changes represented "the dreams of Venezuelan students for generations", and were necessary to strengthen popular power through the creation of worker, student, campesino, and communal councils.

Distortions in the international media notwithstanding, Emilio Negri, president of the Bolivarian Union of Students, argued that more than 90% of students support the constitutional reforms, and that there were 700,000 extra university students as a result of the policies of the Chavez government.

The student protests came as momentum continues to build throughout the country in favour of the constitutional reforms and against the campaign of destabilisation by the US-back right-wing opposition. On November 14, tens of thousands of people rallied in support of Chavez and the proposed reforms in the regional city of Barcelona in Anzootegui state.

Addressing the crowd, Chavez said that the key objective of the reform, "is to give more power to the people", pointing to the proposed change to lower the voting age from 18 to 16, saying "This proposal will open participation to more than two million people".

Speaking earlier the same day to a march of thousands in Maturin, in Monagas state, Chavez said the opposition's plans to destabilise the country would fail because "Venezuela now is not the same as it was in 2002 [when the opposition attempted a military coup]." He argued that the destabilisation campaign was being directed by Washington, because "they want our oil". Venezuela is the world's fifth largest supplier of crude oil.

Small but violent demonstrations against the reforms by opposition students from Venezuela's elite and private universities, who claim the reforms that will enable Chavez to stand for reelection will lead to a dictatorship, have also galvanised Chavez's support base, the poor majority, into action in favour of the reforms.

While opposition to Chavez and the reforms is predominantly centred in the wealthy areas, red graffiti saying "Yes to the reforms" can be seen everywhere, on houses, cars and buses, in the poor barrios of Caracas. The results of a poll by Datanalisis published in the November 12 edition of the opposition-aligned El Universal indicates that the reforms will be approved by 55%.

[Based on articles published at Kiraz Janicke is part of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau.]