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Venezuelans March Against Chavez

 

By: The Associated Press
 The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2002

 

Caracas, Venezuela -- Thousands of Venezuelans marched against President Hugo Chavez Wednesday, the first opposition demonstrations since bloody street fighting and a failed coup three weeks ago.

Mr. Chavez's own supporters also took to the streets in a rival march marking May Day, or International Workers Day. The city dispatched 1,400 police officers and 400 National Guardsmen to prevent violence.

"We are going to march peacefully. There are not going to be any problems," said Jose Albornoz, a leader of the pro-Chavez Fatherland for All party.

On April 11, clashes in Caracas between pro-and anti-government supporters left 17 people dead and hundreds wounded. Mr. Chavez was ousted and replaced with a business leader, then was swept back into power three days later by loyalist troops and pro-government militants.

Fear of more violence could damp participation in Wednesday's marches, which are being seen as a gauge of the opposition's strength following the failed coup. "There is fear. There are people who didn't come because they are scared," said Elias Santana, an opposition leader.

The opposition march was organized by the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation, the country's main labor federation, which is solidly anti-Chavez despite the president's pro-worker rhetoric. Venezuela's unemployment is at 16%.

Just before last month's coup, Mr. Chavez decreed a 20% minimum wage hike in an attempt to quiet labor unrest. The raise, which took effect Wednesday, boosted the minimum monthly wage to $225.

Since the coup, Mr. Chavez has tried to mend ties to the business community by naming a new chief of the state-run oil company and promising to reshuffle his economic team, which critics consider too leftist.

Ruling-party legislators say they are considering calls to roll back laws that have expanded the government role in the economy. But many are skeptical about Mr. Chavez's efforts to reach out.

"We don't want this president. He has made Venezuelans hate one another," said Maria Vargas, an upper-class housewife who joined the workers' march.

Across the city at a march organized by the pro-Chavez Bolivarian Workers' Force, government supporters celebrated the coup's failure. "He's back! He's back!" they chanted, many wearing replicas of the red beret that Mr. Chavez, a former army paratrooper, wore when he first burst onto the political scene in 1992.

After serving prison time for trying to stage a failed coup, Mr. Chavez was elected president with massive popular support in December 1998. His authoritarian style and leftist rhetoric have alienated many former supporters, as well as business leaders and the powerful Roman Catholic Church.


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