July 30, 2005

Chavez supporters block Venezuela protest march

By Matthew Robinson

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Supporters of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez on Saturday set piles of garbage on fire
to halt a march by 1,000 protesters who say local elections
next month will be unfair, witnesses said.

The fires led police to stop the anti-government march
about two blocks from the National Electoral Council (CNE). The
protesters say the CNE favors Chavez's ruling party and cannot
properly oversee Aug. 7 parish and municipal council elections.

Police erected metal barricades to keep the protesters
apart from Chavez supporters, who shouted insults and hurled
bottles, stones, and firecrackers at the marchers as they
approached the pro-Chavez downtown area of Caracas.

"We came to hand over a document. ... We came to denounce
serious irregularities," Oscar Perez, a leader of the march,
told reporters as protesters chanted "Down with the

They demanded anti-fraud measures for the upcoming
elections such as a thorough audit of Venezuela's electoral
register, international observers and a manual count of the
ballots cast.

Foes of Chavez say a pro-government majority controls the
leadership of the CNE electoral authority.

Opposition leaders accused the president and his supporters
of using fraud to win an August 2004 referendum of his rule.
But international observers endorsed the results that gave
Chavez nearly 60 percent of the votes.

The outcome of the referendum left the opposition weakened
and divided.

Some opposition leaders are calling for a boycott of the
poll while others say voters must participate. Chavez's Fifth
Republic Movement Party holds a majority of seats in Congress
and nearly all the governorships of Venezuela's 23 states.

The 2004 referendum in the OPEC nation came after more than
two years of bitter conflict between foes and supporters of
Chavez. During that time, the president survived a brief April
2002 coup attempt and a two-month anti-government strike in the
oil sector.

Critics say Chavez's social programs for the poor are
hurting Venezuela's economy and that he is a budding communist
autocrat abusing institutions to amass power.

But his supporters say his self-styled "revolution" has
created health, social, and economic projects that are
countering decades of neglect by previous government of
Venezuela's poor.

(With additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher)