April 9, 2013— -- A group of 40 students that is currently on hunger strike to demand fair elections in Venezuela was attacked on Monday night by alleged supporters of Venezuelan interim president, Nicolas Maduro.
The student group, called Operacion Soberania, (Operation Sovereignty) has been camping out in a small plaza in Caracas' La Castellana neighborhood since Friday evening, where they set up tents and banners to protest Venezuela's "rigged" electoral system.
On Monday night, supporters of Nicolas Maduro who rode in pick up trucks, motorcycles, and on the back of a large garbage disposal truck, drove around the plaza several times, chanting campaign slogans for Venezuela's socialist leader.
The Maduro supporters eventually descended from their vehicles and verbally insulted the students, claiming that someone in the plaza had thrown a rock at one of their cars.
The situation escalated when a female student was pulled by her hair and wrestled to the ground, then punched in the neck, by a couple of Maduro supporters.
A chaotic melee ensued in which Maduro supporters threw beer bottles and rocks at the student crowd as well as two Molotov cocktails. Students, who were at the site to support the hunger strikers, briefly rushed away from the Maduro supporters but then "defended" their campsite by throwing rocks and other objects.
One student tent was destroyed, and at least two students sustained serious injuries, which prompted them to be taken to a nearby hospital.
Alexander Tirado, one of the leaders of Operation Sovereignty said that it is "normal" for these things to happen in Venezuela.
"The government's supporters feel cornered because we are winning (political) spaces and they are losing them," Tirado said. "They are afraid of the actions we are taking here."
Student leader Rafael Chinchilla, who was at the site to support the hunger strikers, claimed that Maduro's radical supporters had planned Monday's violence.
But Maduro claimed that Monday's assailants were not actually his supporters. During a campaign rally in the city of Barcelona, he said they were part of a small group "financed by the United States" that is trying to tarnish his image.
"I've ordered (officials) to investigate what happened and proceed immediately to get video and photography," Maduro said. "Whoever is responsible must go to prison for this."
While political rallies are largely peaceful in Venezuela, more radical acts of protest have been recently met with violence.
Just three weeks ago, for example, a rally in which Operation Sovereignty tried to take a petition to Venezuela's National Electoral Council had to be broken up after assistants were pelted with bottles and rocks. In smaller Venezuelan cities there have also been reports of gunmen with hoods and socialist party insignia storming into universities were protests take place.
Operation Sovereignty has been organizing protests against Venezuela's government since January. Its members said that violent threats would not deter them from their current purpose, which is to draw attention to Venezuela's "rigged" electoral system.
They say they want the government to give equal time to both candidates on state-run TV, which currently gives seemingly limitless coverage to Nicolas Maduro, and almost none to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
Students also want state-owned companies, such as the national oil company, to stop backing the Maduro campaign, and they want the government to stop using fingerprint scanners at voting booths. The students claim that the government can use these scanners to tell who people vote for.
The members of Operation Sovereignty acknowledge that it is highly unlikely that the government will agree to their requests before Venezuela's presidential election on April 14.
But they are hoping that their protest makes Venezuelans more active in defending their democracy.
"You can't just defend democracy by handing out fliers (for the opposition candidate) and voting," hunger striker Alexander Tirado said. "You have to show that you will resist (oppression), and stand up for your beliefs."