Rallies for and against constitutional changes proposed by President Hugo Chavez surged Tuesday as the Venezuelan leader declared that a weekend referendum on the proposed charter "cannot fail."
Such gatherings have increased tensions ahead of Sunday's referendum on reforms that would allow Chavez indefinite reelection, increase presidential terms from six to seven years and help the Venezuelan leader establish socialism in Venezuela.
About 300 students gathered Tuesday outside the Catholic University Andres Bello in Caracas, occupying a highway for four hours and causing rush-hour traffic jams. The students, who contend the new constitution would give Chavez authoritarian powers, waved placards attacking the referendum.
"We students will keep coming out onto the street to demand freedom and democracy," said Roberto Diaz, a 21-year old law student at the university. Dozens of police and national guard monitored the demonstration that ended Tuesday evening without incident.
In Puerto La Cruz, 240 kilometers ( 150 miles) east of Caracas, at least 300 students protesting the referendum clashed with Chavez supporters outside the private Santa Maria University, police said. Some Chavez supporters appeared to have guns, an officer said.
"They are hitting each other and there have been gunshots. Police are trying to calm down those involved," police officer Alexander Gonzalez said by telephone from Puerto La Cruz. "We have no reports of injuries, but we know that there has been a confrontation."
At the same time, about 5,000 mainly female Chavez supporters gathered in a stadium west of Caracas in a rally to back the referendum campaign. Participants in the "Women for Yes" rally, many dressed in Chavista red, waved posters with images of Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"The women in this process have much to gain and nothing to lose," said Chavez supporter Luzbelia Marin. "After Dec. 2, the Magna Carta will incorporate equality between men and women in the different electoral processes and policies."
Students have been one of the major sources of opposition to Chavez's referendum.
A man was shot to death Monday after he tried to cross a similar protest, near the city of Valencia. Chavez blamed violent elements within the opposition for the killing. Around 80 people were arrested in the disturbances.
In a speech at an air base west of Caracas on Tuesday, Chavez said Venezuelans will vote "yes" in the referendum to "open the path to a new nation."
"On Saturday, the final attack begins, and Sunday ... it's written: the people will vote and will say yes to the call we're giving to open the path to a new nation," Chavez said, alluding to the referendum that aims to modify 69 of the 530 articles in the constitution.
"We can't go backward, we cannot fail! We're obligated to victory, to continue triumphing. This is a battle of world proportions. And Venezuela, there, modestly there, is playing a very important role," Chavez said.
Still, according to recent polls, the "no" could give Chavez his first defeat Chavez at the polls since he first won office in 1998. Chavez himself has suggested that losing, his government "would have to enter a period of profound reflection." ( AP )