Mon, Nov 27, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Venezuelans take to the streets for Rosales


Hundreds of thousands of Venez-uelans packed a major highway in a rally for opposition presidential candidate Manual Rosales, one of the largest demonstrations against President Hugo Chavez in years.

Shouts of "Dare to change!" rose up from the dense crowd filling the highway for several kilometers and spilling into nearby overpasses and streets in Venezuela's capital, Caracas. Saturday's rally came eight days before the country's presidential election on Sunday

Rosales, speaking from a stage, promised democracy for a country he said was sinking into Cuba-style authoritarianism under Chavez.

"I don't want to be a president who controls all the branches of government," Rosales shouted to thundering applause. "Let there be true democracy in Venezuela!"

He denounced the government for prohibiting television crews from using helicopters to film the march, saying, "They don't want the people to see this multitude."

"They are scared," he shouted, pumping his fists. "We are going to win on Dec. 3."

The crowd appeared to number in the hundreds of thousands. Organizers claimed more than 1 million people attended.

Rosales, the governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia who favors a free-market economy over Chavez's brand of socialism, trailed the Venezuelan president by a wide margin in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month.

However, his candidacy has managed to galvanize Venezuela's fractured opposition, reviving a movement that had struggled to recover from a crushing defeat in a 2004 recall referendum against Chavez.

Rosales said the vast crowd on Saturday was proof he would defeat Chavez.

"It's Caracas in the streets," he said. "A great avalanche of votes!"

Marchers departed from various points in the city of 5 million and converged on the Francisco Fajardo Highway, where they danced to Venezuelan folk music booming from loudspeakers and chanted anti-Chavez slogans.

"After seeing this, nobody should have any doubts about Rosales' chances," 43-year-old accountant Franklin Salas said.

More than 3,000 police were deployed along the march route to prevent clashes with Chavez supporters who gathered on several street corners, shouting "Viva Chavez!" as marchers passed.

There were no reports of violence or clashes with police.

Despite the revived opposition movement, Chavez remains hugely popular among the poor, especially those who see benefits from oil-funded social programs ranging from free health care to heavily subsidized government grocery stores.

Rosales lashed out at Chavez for wanting to be "president all his life, until he dies like Fidel Castro -- indefinite re-election."

"This country doesn't want that. It wants modernity," he said.

Chavez, first elected in 1998, has said he wants to continue governing Venezuela until 2021 or longer. He said he plans to ask Venezuelans in a referendum if they support changing the Constitution to allow indefinite re-election. It currently allows two consecutive presidential terms.

Rosales accused the Chavez administration of having no respect for private property and giving away the country's oil wealth to leftist allies overseas.

He said Chavez wants "a new rich and more poor people ... an elite that runs everything."

Rosales, who has temporarily stepped down as Zulia governor to run for president, is one of the few opposition politicians to hold on to office as Chavez's allies have gained control of the National Assembly, state offices and the courts.

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