Divided Venezuelans march for, against Chávez

Thousands of Venezuelans marched on Saturday in protests against President Hugo Chávez while thousands of his supporters held their own rallies, a sign of the sharp split in the Opec nation over the socialist leader’s policies.

Chávez remains popular with the poor and workers after living standards rose during an oil boom. But other Venezuelans are fiercely opposed to the leftist leader who has nationalized much of the economy and this year clamped down on opposition politicians and the media.

Many are also angry about a new education law that boosts the government’s control over schools and universities. Venezuelan children return to school next week after the summer break.

“I am fighting for my daughter and all the children of Venezuela because they have no future with this man,” said a demonstrator in Caracas named Elian who declined to give her last name because she works at a government ministry.

Opponents are also angry at the government for shutting dozens of radio stations last month.
On Saturday, Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello said 29 more will be closed soon.

There have been a number of marches this year, and anti-government protesters often scuffle with police. But the tension is not nearly as high as it was in 2002, when huge protests ended in a several deaths and a coup that briefly ousted Chávez.

Chávez lauds backers
Chávez this year won a referendum allowing him to run for re-election as often as he likes, meaning he could stay in power for decades. Some of his opponents want to remove him by force.

“We have to get rid of this communist man, even if it’s by a bad route,” shouted demonstrator Sonia, a Swiss national resident in Venezuela. “We are starting a popular revolution.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Chávez supporters, many dressed in the red color of his Socialist Party and dancing to salsa music, marched in Caracas and other cities to counter the opposition event.

They were also protesting a Colombian plan giving US troops more access to its military bases for joint operations against cocaine traffickers and leftist rebels.

“We are here today to support our president and reject the opposition march,” said parliament worker Nelson Guanchez (27) at a Caracas rally with his girlfriend and his dog. All three wore red T-shirts with the slogan ‘I love Chávez.’

Currently visiting, the president spoke to the Caracas rally by telephone, yelling his slogan “Homeland, socialism, or death,” and telling supporters he was proud of them.

On Friday, thousands gathered in mainly small protests in cities across Latin America in opposition to Chávez. The protests were organized on social networking sites from Colombia. Bogota accuses Chávez of political meddling in a diplomatic crisis over the military bases deal.

Saturday’s opposition march ended at the attorney general’s office in Caracas to protest arrests at demonstrations last month and a recent warning by Attorney General Luisa Ortega that protesters could be prosecuted for “rebellion” if they disturb the peace. - Reuters

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