Thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas Wednesday in marches for and against President Hugo Chavez. It was the 13th anniversary of riots over transportation price hikes that left scores dead and the date gave a symbolic underpinning to the rhetoric from both sides. The demonstrations reveal the depth of political divisions that threaten to paralyze the South American nation.
In the early morning sunshine, marchers gathered at two separate points in the city, with two separate political objectives. One group called for the end of the Chavez government. Thousands of people waving flags and banners condemned President Chavez and called for him to step down from office. Police with riot gear stood by and did not interfere with the march.
On the other side of the city, thousands more Venezuelans also took to the streets to show support for Mr. Chavez. They also carried banners and flags, but some carried photos of President Chavez in his military uniform, wearing his traditional red beret. They made their way through the streets to the presidential residence, known as Miraflores, where their leader donned his red beret and came before them to speak.
Mr. Chavez said his government project, which he refers to as a revolution, represents the best interests of all classes. He said it was untrue that the middle class is against him and he noted the presence of many middle class supporters in the crowd. The Venezuelan president said they recognize that his program represents the only peaceful way for all social groups to prosper.
But while it is true that some middle class people do support the Chavez government, it is also clear that most business leaders here are in conflict with Mr. Chavez. There are also many unions and other representatives of working class people who are now in the opposition.
Workers in the critically important petroleum industry are threatening work slowdowns if President Chavez continues to meddle in that sector.
On Tuesday, for the fourth time in the past few weeks, a military officer publicly condemned the president. But few observers here see the possibility of a military rebellion against Mr. Chavez and this week the U.S. government made clear its opposition to any action that would violate Venezuela's democratic institutions.