(NEW YORK) — A group of 40 students currently on hunger strike to demand fair elections in Venezuela was attacked 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 what they call Venezuela’s “rigged” electoral system.
On Monday night, alleged supporters of Maduro who rode in pickup 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.
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.
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 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.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Ivana Kottasova, CNN
Alanna Petroff, CNN
Sugam Pokharel and AJ Willingham, CNN