Hundreds of thousands march as divided Venezuela marks birthday of its democracy

Wednesday, January 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans celebrated their democracy's 44th birthday in divided fashion Wednesday with an unprecedented march against President Hugo Chavez and an impassioned defense of his revolution.

Banging pots, pans and drums, more than 100,000 people marched in Caracas to protest a government they say threatens liberties gained when a military-backed popular uprising ousted Venezuela's last dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez, on Jan. 23, 1958.

Chavez, in turn, summoned more than 100,000 people to the streets to trumpet his three-year-old democratic revolution. Citing the twin marches, Chavez's ministers argued that his government tolerates dissent and isn't clamping down on the news media.

Wednesday's marches took separate paths, and more than 3,000 police and National Guard troops were on hand to deter violence. Government supporters and opponents clashed in December when a pro-Chavez mob stormed an opposition demonstration, and Chavez supporters recently have harassed Venezuelan journalists.

The presidency offered to protect reporters covering Wednesday's events. Independent TV stations shared footage to eliminate the need for roving camera crews who could be subject to attack.

Opposition leaders claim Chavez has accumulated authoritarian power through elections that replaced a discredited, opposition-controlled congress and supreme court. They had to change their march route to avoid clashes when Chavez organized his ``counter-march'' last week.

``The government has to listen, because this is the way most of the country feels. It wants democracy and respect for dissent,'' said Pedro Carmona, president of Fedecamaras, Venezuela's largest business confederation.

Elected in 1998 with 80 percent of the vote, Chavez's popularity had slipped to about 35 percent by December. Many Venezuelans believe he spends too much time condemning his critics and too little tackling crime and creating jobs.

On Dec. 10, labor and business groups, surprised and angered by 49 economic laws decreed by Chavez, organized a general strike that virtually paralyzed the country.

The opposition said its march demonstrated unprecedented unity by including labor unionists, business leaders, conservative political parties and radical student groups.

Government supporters say their opponents are bent on toppling Chavez, a former army officer who led a failed coup in 1992. They say Venezuela's elite resent his efforts to redistribute wealth to the country's majority poor.

It was the first time as president that Chavez marked the anniversary of Venezuelan democracy. He previously celebrated the Feb. 4 anniversaries of his failed military coup _ and plans to do so again this year.