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Venezuelans March for Freedom of Expression

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have marched in the capital to press for freedom of expression, one month after self-proclaimed socialist President Hugo Chavez shut down the country's most popular private television station. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Caracas.

Venezuela's private news media declared Wednesday Press Freedom Day, and large numbers of spirited opponents of President Chavez heeded the call to take to the streets. Among them was school teacher Maria Isabel. "I am fighting for the rights of Venezuelans to have a free and democratic country where no one prevents me from expressing myself. I lived through the era of dictatorship, and I do not want to return to that situation," she said.

Government opponents remain incensed that President Chavez refused to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television, forcing it off the air.

Mr. Chavez accused the opposition-allied RCTV of inciting rebellion against the government and backing a failed 2002 coup.

The head of the now-defunct RCTV, Eladio Lares, says the allegations are false. Speaking with VOA at the march, he said what is at stake in Venezuela today goes far beyond the fate of one television station.

"What is at risk is freedom of expression, which at this moment is being restricted. We will recover it when the signal of Radio Caracas is restored," he said.

The government had initially objected to the march, saying it could interfere with a hemispheric soccer championship Venezuela is currently hosting, the Copa America. Security forces did not intervene or impede the march, however,

and one government representative, social projects administrator Omar Urbina, bravely waded into the crowd sporting a red baseball cap which signified his support for Mr. Chavez.

"I applaud freedom of expression. The world says there is no democracy here. But look, here it is," he said.

Almost as soon as he began speaking, however, Urbina was surrounded by angry and highly vocal marchers.

Urbina's attempts to speak with this reporter were repeatedly interrupted,and at one point he turned to plead with the crowd. "Show that you can behave, that you have manners. Show that there truly is freedom of expression. Then, turning to this reporter, he commented, You see? They will not let me speak," he said.

Elsewhere in the city, addressing government supporters, former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel labeled the marchers as a defeated people who have been swept aside to the margins of Venezuelan history. He added there is no country on earth that enjoys more freedom of expression than Venezuela.

The march came as President Chavez arrived in Moscow, beginning a weeklong trip that will also take the Venezuelan leader to Belarus and Iran.