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Venezuela and political violence

 The Vatican's consulate in Venezuela was attacked yesterday. Two men on a motorbike approached the building in Caracas and threw tear gas bombs at the building, according to a press release issued by the Vatican.

This is not the first attack on a religious institution here. Last week, armed men broke into Caracas' oldest synagogue, vandalizing their offices.

What is going on? Opposition leaders accuse the government of sponsoring the attacks. In court, a prosecutor would argue that the government does have its motives. The Catholic Church is an outspoken critic of President Hugo Chavez while the Venezuelan government was one of the few countries outside of the Middle East to openly take sides in the Israel/Palestinian conflict by expelling the Israeli ambassador to Venezuela.

Tear gas attacks are a common method used by the militant group La Piedrita. Last year they claimed responsibility for a tear gas bomb attack on the offices of the anti-Chavez TV station Globovision. They also threw tear gas bombs at the apartment blocks of several leading opposition journalists.

The attack on the synagogue appears to be the work of a more professional outfit, according to Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the newspaper Tal Cual. He points to the fact that the intruders managed to crack two safes during the raid. 

The government, for its part, says the attacks were carried out by the opposition coalition in a bid to foster polarizing tensions ahead of a referendum on Feb. 15 that seeks to scrap presidential term limits.

The opposition are no saints and they did carry out an attempted coup in 2002 which sought to depose Chavez.

In Venezuelan politics it's very hard to read between the lines. Both sides seek to exploit situations and create polarization. Few moderates are given a platform.

What's interesting about the situation is that while these attacks are menacing, few so far have resulted in deaths. While the possibility of violent robbery and car-jackings are a very real danger for many Venezuelans — in Caracas 5 people a day are killed, often for little more than the watch on their wrist — this violence has yet to spill over into the political sphere in the same way as in neighboring Colombia.

Many predict that such a situation could arise from the results of the referendum, whichever way it goes. But let's hope that isn't the case.