Venezuela: Marches in Support of and against President Hugo Chavez Show Polarized Society
In what government opponents predicted would be an irrefutable show of strength, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched in Caracas on Oct. 10 demanding that President Hugo Chavez step down. Two days later, at least as many pro-government marchers took over the streets. Chavez joined their march and told the crowd that he was not going anywhere.
The political crisis in Venezuela has deepened since the April two-day coup that briefly ousted Chavez. Since his return, supporters and opponents have waged a war of words and dueling demonstrations that have increased the polarization to the degree that any constructive dialogue seems impossible.
On Oct. 4, Organization of American States (OAS) secretary-general Cesar Gaviria, at the conclusion of a three- day trip to Venezuela, said it was critical that Chavez and his opposition agree on an agenda for dialogue to avoid more upheaval. He left a "statement of principles" that he hoped both the government and opposition would sign. "It would be unthinkable if this country's leaders didn't give a peaceful solution a chance," said Gaviria.
Opposition leaders insist that early elections are the only way to prevent more violence. They accuse Chavez of leading the economy into recession and fostering violence against dissenters by portraying them as enemies of his Bolivarian revolution to help the poor.
Chavez, whose term ends in 2007, blames the opposition for the political and economic woes. He says opponents must wait until August 2003, the earliest date the Constitution would allow a revocatory referendum on his rule.
"It's a country where every day the opposition wakes up not thinking how to improve the situation but how to overthrow the government," says Ali Rodriguez, head of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
Opposition holds "Toma de Caracas"
On Oct. 10, the opposition filled the main streets in what they called the Toma de Caracas (takeover of Caracas), chanting "Elections now!"
Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) secretary Alfredo Ramos said the outpouring was "practically a plebiscite in which the people are telling Chavez to go, to convoke elections."
CTV president Carlos Ortega warned that if Chavez did not resign or call early elections by Oct. 21, there would be a national strike.
Carlos Fernandez, head of the business group Fedecamaras, repeated that ultimatum and said if Chavez did not respond by Oct. 21, the opposition would carry out "other actions," including more marches and the national strike.
Chavez supporters respond
The streets filled again on Oct. 13, this time with hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters, who commemorated his dramatic return after the unsuccessful coup six months ago and rejected calls that the president resign.
After flying over the demonstration in a helicopter, Chavez joined the march through the capital and dismissed the opposition threats. "Revocatory referendum in August 2003 if they can collect the necessary signatures," said Chavez. "Presidential elections in December 2006, that is the answer" to Ortega's ultimatum.
"The people want peace and democracy, but they also have the strength to impose the Constitution" against would-be coup plotters, he said. "I challenge the opposition to try bring the country to a halt. Let's see if they can."
Chavez said the massive support was the people's "clear answer to the threats and blackmail, to the coup-plotting and fascism disguised as democracy."
Estimates of the turnout at both marches varied widely, but Agence France Presse reported that, while both were huge, the pro-Chavez crowd outnumbered that of the opposition.
"This is a country that is extremely politically divided, with its hard-line extremes writing the agenda of both sides," analyst Barry Lynn with US-based think tank New America Foundation told Inter Press Service. …