Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Protesters demand plebiscite to bring end to Chavez's rule

AP , CARACAS, VENEZUELA

Shouting "referendum now," caravans of opposition supporters drove through the streets of Caracas early yesterday as they opened a renewed drive to push for a recall vote on President Hugo Chavez's rule.

Fireworks burst over the city with thunderous booms sending bright red, white and green flashes across the dark sky shortly after midnight.

The caravans of Chavez opponents, blowing whistles, waving Venezuelan flags and banging pots and pans, were met by tens of thousands who jammed a central highway to show their support for the possible plebiscite.

Others gathered in neighborhood plazas or roamed the streets -- walking, biking or skateboarding -- to protest Chavez's continued rule. The smell of spent fireworks filled the air.

"His time has come. I know the referendum won't happen soon, but when it does I'm sure it will mean the end of Chavez's government," said Henrique Diaz, 47, an unemployed accountant who brought his two teenage sons to the highway demonstration.

The opposition, which failed to drive Chavez out of power in a two-month strike earlier this year, called the rallies to mark the midpoint of Chavez's six-year term -- the day when opponents can officially demand a vote on his rule.

Opposition leaders planned to turn in 2.7 million signatures demanding the referendum while sympathizers staged another street march later yesterday.

The government organized its own rally in the capital Tuesday to commemorate Chavez's re-election three years ago.

Soldiers held a bargain food market, doctors offered free checkups and folk music boomed from loudspeakers in the central Avenida Bolivar. People crowded around booths promoting government social programs like "Inside the Barrio," which uses Cuban doctors to attend the inhabitants of city slums.

"This is a government that ends its third year battling for and with the people," said Chavez, speaking to a crowd Tuesday evening in Argentina, where he was for an official visit. His speech was broadcast on national television in Venezuela.

The Supreme Court is slated to appoint an elections authority by Aug. 24 -- then signatures must be verified, voter rolls updated and hundreds of regional election officials chosen.

After a failed coup in April last year and an unsuccessful two-month general strike earlier this year, frustrated Chavez foes are pinning their hopes on the referendum. Otherwise, the next scheduled presidential election is in 2006.

The Organization of American States has endorsed the vote as peaceful solution to a political crisis that has dangerously divided the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Critics accuse Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, of failing to deliver on his promises to bring in economic prosperity and put an end to rampant corruption.

Chavez claims the opposition is controlled by a powerful "oligarchy," which has hurt his efforts to empower the nation's poor majority. He often cites the strike, which cost an estimated US$7.5 billion, as an example.

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