Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Massive rallies staged for and against Chavez

AP , CARACAS, VENEZUELA

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez take part in a demonstration through the streets of Caracas on Sunday.

PHOTO: EPA

A week before a recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez's rule, supporters and opponents of the Venezuelan leader held massive events in Caracas, each side confident of victory in the emotionally-charged election.

Polls show the country is split evenly between those for and against Chavez. Supporters see him as a champion of the poor and a new hope after decades of corrupt governments, while opponents accuse him of seeking to install a communist dictatorship.

Tens of thousands of Chavez's followers, clad in red, marched on Sunday with signs saying "No" to the recall and "Ahead with the Revolution," celebrating what they say is a sure win on the Aug. 15 vote.

A Chavez ally, Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal, estimated that 900,000 people took part in the march, declaring to reporters that "the opposition is dead and we will bury it." Caracas fire chief Rodolfo Briceno said only that the crowd size was "well over 100,000."

Chavez spoke to the crowd, saying that a victory next Sunday would be a home run which would "fall on the gardens of the White House."

Chavez, who survived a short-lived coup in 2002, has accused the Bush administration of backing alleged opposition plans to overthrow him. Both the US and the opposition deny the claims. The US is Venezuela's main oil buyer, but relations have been strained due to Chavez's ties with Cuba and his criticism of US-backed free market proposals.

To be recalled, more citizens must vote against Chavez than the nearly 3.8 million who re-elected him in 2000. If they succeed, elections will be held in 30 days and the winner will finish Chavez's term.

The opposition "wants to recall Chavez because he is not a lap dog for the United States. That is why we, the real patriots, are here, to show Venezuela and the world that Chavez has our support and that Venezuela is and always will be a free country under his rule," said Roberto Mendez, a 41-year-old unemployed worker.

On the other side of town, the opposition gathered its followers in a caravan and a concert with rock artists and comedians. Immigrants pledged their support to the opposition in a separate event, dressed in their traditional costumes and bearing their flags.

"In seven days, Venezuelans will have a chance to stop the demon of intolerance, division, unemployment and hunger," opposition leader Enrique Mendoza said during the rally for the immigrants.

Also Sunday, the National Elections Council tested the new touch-screen voting machines before members of the opposition and government, and international observers.

Elections council Director Jorge Rodriguez said that the tests had gone well. Valter Pecly Moreira, chief of the mission of the Organization of American States in Venezuela, agreed.

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