Venezuela's political opposition scored an important symbolic victory Monday. Marchers carrying a referendum petition were able to reach the headquarters of the electoral council. A stone throwing, pro-government mob had attempted to stop the petitioners until local police stepped in.
This is the first time in Venezuelan history that a referendum has been requested by the electorate, and the issue is a divisive one.
If the referendum question is approved, voters will be asked whether President Hugo Chavez should immediately resign voluntarily.
The president, however, says the referendum is unconstitutional. There are only two ways, he says, to remove him from power before his term ends in 2007, either await a binding recall referendum, which could be held as soon as next August or amend the constitution to move up the election.
Taking him at his word, the president's hard-core supporters gathered Monday morning outside the headquarters of the electoral authority, the CNE, in downtown Caracas.
Chanting slogans like "they shall not pass" and "this is a class struggle, poor against rich", Mr. Chavez's supporters prepared to repel the opposition marchers, whose departure point was in the richer eastern half of the city.
Efforts by pro-government figures including the radical mayor of Caracas, Freddy Bernal, to persuade the pro-government demonstrators to move away proved fruitless. The government was clearly concerned that its supporters were presenting a violent image to the world, just as Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, was arriving in Caracas in his latest bid to get negotiations underway.
As the marchers approached, pitched battles broke out between the pro-Chavez demonstrators, who threw rocks and bottles and built burning barricades, and the metropolitan police who used tear gas. A number of people had to be treated for gas inhalation, and several for contusions and gunshot wounds. Journalists were reportedly among the injured.
For almost an hour after the battle began the national guard, which was protecting the CNE building, did nothing to disperse the rock throwers.
Once they moved in, however, the streets were rapidly cleared, and the marchers were able to deliver the signatures. The CNE now has a month to decide whether or not to go ahead with the referendum. If it does not, the opposition has threatened an indefinite general strike to force Mr. Chavez out.