Police fire plastic bullets, water cannons at protesting students in Venezuela

Police used a water cannon against Venezuelan students who oppose a law that increases government control of universities. Police used a water cannon against Venezuelan students who oppose a law that increases government control of universities. (Miguel Gutierrez/AFP/Getty Images)
Associated Press / December 24, 2010

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CARACAS — Police and soldiers fired water cannons and plastic bullets yesterday as thousands of students demonstrated against a law that increases government powers over Venezuela’s universities.

At least four people were injured, including a news photographer who was treated for a cut to the head after being hit with an object.

Dozens of police and National Guard troops in riot gear blocked protesters outside the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, firing plastic bullets into the air and at the demonstrators.

The law governing universities, approved by the National Assembly before dawn yesterday, was denounced by students as an attempt by President Hugo Chavez to clamp down on autonomous state institutions that have been a bastion of opposition to his government.

“They won’t take away our right to protest,’’ the protesters chanted. “Long live the university! Out with the military boot!’’

The students had planned to march to the National Assembly but were turned back. Later, hundreds of students managed to continue the march through Caracas on another route, evading authorities who were firing plastic bullets and a water cannon. The students shouted: “People, listen! This is a dictatorship!’’

The protest ended peacefully once they circled back to Plaza Venezuela near the university.

“We came out to protest against this unconstitutional law, and, as is customary under totalitarian governments, they didn’t let us leave,’’ said Diego Scharifker, student federation president at the university.

Protesters said the law gives too much power to the government’s higher education minister and also seeks to promote socialist ideology in the universities.

Scharifker said the law “imposes socialism as the sole ideology, does away with university autonomy because it concentrates all powers in the higher education minister.’’

The law is the latest in a series of controversial measures enacted in the final days of a solidly pro-Chavez National Assembly; on Jan. 5, a new legislature takes office with a bigger opposition contingent capable of hindering some types of laws.

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