Venezuela: Massive rally backs Chavez opponent

Hundreds of thousands rally eight days before the country's presidential election.

anti-chavez protest 88 (photo credit: )
anti-chavez protest 88
(photo credit: )
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans packed a major highway Saturday in a rally for opposition presidential candidate Manuel 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 miles and spilling into nearby overpasses and streets in Venezuela's capital, Caracas. The rally came eight days before the country's presidential election on Dec. 3. 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 AP-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. 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 while neglecting the poor at home. He said Chavez wants "a new rich and more poor people ... an elite that runs everything." Rosales, who 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. Rosales accused the Chavez government of imprisoning people for political reasons and said he would free them if elected. The government says Venezuela has no political prisoners, only people legitimately convicted of crimes. Ernesto Galindez, a 58-year-old butcher who backs Chavez, said he was surprised by the size of Saturday's march, but predicted Rosales would lose. "They are going to have to wait six more years because Chavez is still very strong, and he's not going anywhere," said Galindez, grinning.