Chavez rallies supporters amid clash with US
By Patrick Markey
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela’s President Hugo
Chavez rallied tens of thousands of supporters in Caracas on
Saturday as the socialist leader squared off with Washington in
a diplomatic spat over charges of U.S. espionage.
In a sea of red banners and flags, state oil workers,
students and public employees marked the anniversary of a 1992
coup Chavez led as a young soldier, while his opponents marched
to protest against a leader they accuse of authoritarian rule.
Ties between Washington and oil producer Venezuela hit a
new low in the last week after Chavez expelled a U.S. military
attache accused of spying and the U.S. government responded by
ordering a Venezuelan embassy official to leave.
The Venezuelan leader has put himself at the center of
regional opposition to U.S. President George W. Bush who he
calls “Mr Danger” while Washington brands Chavez a threat to
regional stability and criticizes his alliance with Cuba.
“There is no opposition here, the only opposition is Bush
and his gang in Washington. They are gang members,” Vice
President Jose Vicente Rangel said at the rally. “The real
modern-day Hitler is George Bush. For me he is Adolf Bush.”
Marchers hoisted placards praising Chavez’s social programs
for the poor and bearing images of Argentine revolutionary hero
Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Cuban President Fidel Castro as the
rally snaked along a highway toward the center of the capital.
Buses brought Chavez supporters from outside the capital
and many wore red T-shirts from government ministries, regional
governor offices and state-run programs.
The president was expected to address supporters later on
Saturday after returning from a trip to Havana.
Flush with cash from high crude prices, Chavez is promoting
socialist reforms at home and aggressively challenging U.S.
free-market proposals by allying himself with his South
American neighbors, as well as Cuba and Iran.
Since his 1998 election, Chavez has clashed repeatedly with
the United States, which he accuses of trying to overthrow his
government and backing a brief 2002 coup attempt that he
survived with the help of loyal troops.
Critics accuse the Venezuelan leader of eroding democracy
by controlling institutions such as the courts while Washington
brands him a negative force for teaming up with Havana to
spread his revolutionary message through South America.
In another part of Caracas, several thousand opposition
supporters took to the streets on Saturday as they tried to
rally their ranks before presidential elections in December.
“This march is motivated by heart. The one Chavez has
organized is moved with money and pressure and tricks, anything
to force people to vote and go to a march,” said Antonio
Ledezma, leader of the small ABP party.
Chavez, whose supporters refer to him fondly as “El
Comandante,” was a young paratrooper when he led the failed
military rebellion on February 4, 1992. He served two years in
prison before rising to political power on a promise to better
the lives of the impoverished majority.
Since winning a 2004 referendum he has consolidated his
government and vowed to accelerate a raft of reforms such as
land redistribution and tighter state control over the
country’s oil and mining sectors.
(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth)