ON a quiet, damp afternoon April 23, students at Caracas's Central University donned hoods and lit a match to a cloth effigy of Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez. A six-hour battle with city police ensued. About 100 students hurled bottles, rocks, and firecrackers; the officers retaliated with tear gas and buckshot.
The protest is just the most visible manifestation of Venezuelans' discontent with the government, which has been simmering since before the failed military coup on Feb. 4.
Their complaints are mostly economic. President Perez's austerity plan helped the economy grow by 9 percent last year, and inflation fell from 80 percent in 1989 to 31 percent in 1991. But official figures show 80 percent of the population of 20 million living in poverty.
There were no arrests and no injuries during the April 23 protest, but during the four previous uprisings since the coup attempt, forceful anti-riot measures by the military and police resulted in four deaths, 91 injuries, and 68 arrests, according to the authorities. Protest organizers place the death toll at 16.
Among the cases reported to the Venezuelan human rights group PROVEA was that of Marcial Alexis Serpa, a 16-year-old who was badly burned at a protest on April 8. Caracas police sprayed him with gasoline and set him on fire, witnesses say. 'Upholding of law and order'
"I don't believe that there is military or police repression," said Defense Minister Fernando Ochoa Antich when asked about the unrest. "What there is is an upholding of law and order."
But Luis Figueroa, the Marxist president of the student union of the Central University, has a different view. "In Venezuela, they have used indiscriminately all the tools of war," he says, ticking off tanks, guns, tear gas, and water cannons. "It creates all the conditions for a confrontation. If the government continues with this attitude, then we will have a civil war in Venezuela."
On March 10, with their constitutional rights to assemble and protest still suspended in the wake of the failed coup, Venezuelans banged on pots and pans for two hours to show their displeasure. In Caracas, participation was estimated as high as 90 percent in poorer neighborhoods and 60 percent in wealthier areas.
The April 9 restoration of full constitutional rights was not enough to placate foes of Perez. Mr. Figueroa says the student union's executive committee, which helped the earlier protests, will continue its crusade to free the jailed coup leaders, improve economic conditions, and oust Perez, a social democrat.
"These are moments when we are defining where the country is going," says Figueroa, who was beaten by police and arrested at a March 19 protest. "We don't feel that the future of our country should be decided without our participation."
"The government is vulnerable," says Enrique Ochoa Antich, human rights director for the opposition party Movement to Socialism and brother of the defense minister. He expects Venezuelans to conduct sit-ins at government offices and to collect signatures on a petition backing constitutional reforms, including creating the position of prime minister and shortening the five-year presidential term.
Perez's Cabinet reinstated the last four suspended rights after the fourth protest, saying Venezuelans had "behaved well."
A nationwide strike called by two opposition political parties failed to materialize, but there were whistle-blowing protests and violence in several cities, including Caracas. Subversives rejected
"The government believes that the people successfully rejected calls from the subversive groups for insurrection," Interior Minister Luis Pinerua Ordaz said in announcing the restoration. Mr. Pinerua warned that the government will not tolerate violent disturbances. "We will continue to act with severity in dealing with anyone who plans on continuing to disrupt public order," he said.
In early April, a popular Caracas radio station was shut down for five days for what officials described as subversive statements. The government says YVKE-Mundial urged resistance to any attempt to move the jailed coup leaders from Fort San Carlos.
Venezuela has been the only country to break diplomatic relations with Peru, after President Alberto Fujimori suspended the Constitution April 5. Enrique Ochoa says Venezuela took that measure because it fears its own discontented citizens could copy Mr. Fujimori's actions. "The popular support [for Fujimori] in Peru represents a fear for the Venezuelan government," he says.
Figueroa says he sees parallels between the Venezuelan unrest and the crisis in Peru based on destabilizing conditions - such as unequal distribution of wealth and political corruption - shared by Peru, Venezuela, and other Latin American nations. He predicts that Perez may try an self-coup himself.
Perez, however, said in a radio address that Venezuela opposes Fujimori's actions because they could destroy democracy in Peru.