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Venezuela again { July 12 2002 }

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Critics Call For Chavez To Give Up Presidency
Venezuela's Political Rift On Display at Big March

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 12, 2002; Page A14

CARACAS, Venezuela, July 11 -- Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched through the streets of Caracas today demanding the resignation of President Hugo Chavez, a peaceful show of force three months after a similar march touched off a burst of political bloodshed and a short-lived coup d'etat.

The protest marked the first time that Venezuela's hardening opposition has turned out in such numbers since 18 people were killed April 11 in a march on the presidential palace. Although today's march was carried off without violence, it suggested the political passions that briefly ousted Chavez three months ago have yet to dissipate.

The Caracas police chief, Emigdio Delgado, estimated that 600,000 people participated.

Despite fears that a second coup might emerge from today's protest, the demonstration unfolded without reported clashes but with customary chants and whistles. But along the route of the march, which police did not allow to end at the presidential palace as planned, the polarization of Venezuela's political life was apparent in the insults that pro-Chavez forces heaped on the mostly middle- and upper-class marchers.

"Whether there is violence or not is up to them," said Luis Guillermo Perez, 40, an unemployed electrician, gesturing toward the protesters passing by. Perez, a father of two sons, had arrived by bus from the western coastal city of Maracaibo on Wednesday night "to protect the palace and my president."

"We are the people, the real civil society," he said. "These people are those who supported the coup, and therefore they have no right to protest."

The march took place two days after former president Jimmy Carter failed to bring together Chavez and opposition leaders for talks aimed at achieving a measure of political reconciliation. Despite urging from U.S. diplomats, who signaled beforehand that Carter represented perhaps the last hope to avert another coup, the opposition refused his invitation to meet with Chavez and begin a "national dialogue" to open up his leftist government to a wider range of views.

Carter's departure left Venezuela without an obvious path out of its political crisis. In recent weeks, Bush administration officials have warned that events here may be building toward a repeat of the April 11 coup, when Chavez was removed from office by a group of senior military officers who replaced him with a short-lived provisional government.

Chavez has made enemies of many powerful Venezuelans with his shrill class-based rhetoric, populist domestic polices such as land reform, and a foreign policy that has made friends of Cuba, Iraq and Libya at the expense of U.S. relations. The Bush administration, for instance, initially blamed Chavez for his own ouster, in contrast to the condemnation expressed by almost every Latin American leader.

Chavez returned to power on April 14 after the military ended its support of the provisional government, which among its first acts had dissolved the Supreme Court, the National Assembly and the 1999 constitution. In the two days between the shootings at the protest march and Chavez's return, rioting in the capital's poorest neighborhoods left at least 40 more people dead, according to human rights groups.

The conflict has persisted, and it was on display in microcosm today at the corner of Avenue Chorro and Parque Venezuela. As marchers passed with signs showing Chavez behind bars, throngs of Chavez supporters shouted them down. Some waved their fingers in obscene gestures; others displayed the constitution or the trademark red beret of Chavez's populist political movement.

"Welcome to the dialogue," read a banner hoisted by two Chavez supporters.

Chavez, who sought to calm Venezuelans on Wednesday night in a national speech, was miles away. He had traveled to a military base in Maracay, a city west of Caracas where an insurrection within the military ranks in April helped restore him to the presidency.

Stores in downtown Caracas were shuttered. At least two rings of police in helmets and bulletproof vests stood between the marchers and the Miraflores presidential palace four blocks away, frustrating protesters who had planned to take their message to the president's door.

"No one is letting us pass, and that's the main reason we are here," said Felix Ojeda, 43 and unemployed, who wore a headband reading "Forgetting is Prohibited" to commemorate the April deaths. "Even without him being there -- the biggest coward in Venezuela -- it would have put more pressure on the government."

Middle-class matrons marched next to fist-waving members of the Movement Toward Socialism, showing the opposition's range and lack of ideological glue. There appeared to be fewer marchers than on April 11, a protest that opposition leaders said attracted 1 million people.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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