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Venezuelans Protest in 'Mega-March' Against Chavez - 2002-12-21


Fierce anti as well as pro-government demonstrations rocked Venezuela's capital Friday as hundreds of thousands of people took over highways and clogged main thoroughfares.

In a massive show of force termed a "mega-march," opponents of President Hugo Chavez gathered in several locations around Caracas and then converged on a central plaza to press their demand for the embattled leader's ouster.

"I want a free and democratic Venezuela," said one marcher, who preferred not to be identified. "President Chavez, for the love of God, leave us in peace and let us be free!"

The demonstrators included a large contingent of university students. They gathered outside a hotel where Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria has presided over negotiations between the government and the opposition. The students presented Mr. Gaviria with a letter asking him to use his influence to bring about rapid elections in Venezuela - a key opposition demand.

The rector of Venezuela's Central University, Guisseppe Giannetto, said students are looking to the future, but also want an investigation of past government abuses.

Mr. Giannetto says there must be a truth commission because the Venezuelan people demand to know what has really happened in recent months. He says Venezuela cannot permit impunity, and that killings and bloodshed must not go unpunished.

Blocks away, pro-Chavez forces held their own rally.

Although clearly outnumbered, backers of the leftist leader made their voices heard, chanting that President Chavez is not leaving.

A pro-government deputy in Venezuela's legislature, Willian Lara says the sentiments expressed by anti-government protesters are not reflective of Venezuelan society as a whole.

Mr. Lara says there is a psychological terrorist campaign being waged against the Venezuelan people by the country's news media. But, he says the campaign has not achieved its goals. The deputy says some people have become victims of manipulation, but the vast majority of the population remains calm and firm in its democratic convictions.

Venezuela is enduring a 19-day opposition-led national strike that has virtually halted oil production in the country. In Caracas, some 80 percent of gasoline stations have run out of fuel. Thursday, the supreme court ordered oil workers back on the job while it considers the legality of the strike. But the workers promptly rejected the order, saying they will only return to their posts when President Chavez is removed from office.

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