March 12, 2006

Chavez celebrates new national flag, foes cry foul

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez held a huge military parade on Sunday to celebrate
changes he made to the nation's flag, a reform foes rejected as
a personal whim of the leftist leader.

Venezuela's National Assembly, dominated by the president's
allies, approved the modified flag last week after Chavez
proposed changes as a tribute to Venezuelan-born, South
American liberation hero Simon Bolivar, whom Chavez says
inspired his socialist revolution.

A small group of Chavez supporters briefly traded blows
with enraged opposition marchers protesting the new flag, which
features an eighth star and a white horse on the coat of arms
galloping to the left instead of the right.

In a ceremony on the 200th anniversary of the country's
flag, Chavez raised the new version at the national pantheon
before attending the parade where soldiers and reservists
marched with participants in his social programs for the poor.

"Eight stars now flutter in the wind in Venezuela, seven
originals and the eighth that Simon Bolivar decreed," Chavez
said. "And the white horse is now free."

Chavez, a former soldier, was elected seven years ago and
has promised a revolution for the poor in the world's No. 5 oil
exporter. His critics at home and in Washington worry about his
alliance with Communist Cuba and say he has eroded democracy by
exercising authoritarian control.

Several hundred opposition supporters marched in Caracas to
protest the new flag. One group of demonstrators carried seven
white stars and an eighth red one painted with the Soviet
hammer and sickle emblem.

Scuffles briefly broke out after Chavez loyalists hoisted
the new flag along the route of the protest march and
opposition supporters tried to take it down. Police quickly
quelled the clashes.

"I'm here to defend my flag, you can't change those things
without asking the people if they agree or not," said Rosa de
Pool, 70, a secretary participating in the opposition protest.

Last year Chavez dismissed the horse image on the flag as
"imperialist" after his daughter asked him why it ran to the
right with its head facing backward. Chavez said Bolivar
decreed in 1817 another star should be added to the flag to
represent the addition of a province to Venezuela.

(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth)