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Venezuelan Protesters Call for Chavez Resignation - 2001-12-08

In Venezuela, demonstrators marched through the streets of Caracas Friday calling for the resignation of populist President Hugo Chavez in the midst of preparations for a national work-stoppage on Monday to protest his government's policies. A heavy police presence Friday prevented an outbreak of violence.

Supporters of President Chavez set off firecrackers and shouted slogans as they massed in front of the Presidential Palace Friday to stop the anti-government protesters from reaching the building.

Police in riot gear and reinforced with water cannon separated the two sides, blocking the avenue to prevent the demonstrators from reaching their destination and clashing with Mr. Chavez' supporters. No major incidents of violence were reported.

The demonstration, organized by a group calling for Mr. Chavez' resignation, mustered only about 1,000 people. But one protester, who did not want to give his name, said the demonstration should not be judged on its low turnout. "What we want to demonstrate is that we are not in agreement with what President Chavez is doing, and I think here we are only about one or two percent of the (large mass of) people who are not in agreement with Chavez," he said.

Friday's march came as the South American nation prepares for a one-day work-stoppage Monday called by Venezuela's largest business association to protest what it says are Mr. Chavez' leftist economic policies.

The business association, Fedecamaras, objects to 49 laws promulgated by the Venezuelan leader through decree last month under powers granted to him by the Congress. Fedecamaras says these laws give the state too great a role in industries ranging from agriculture to oil. But the Venezuelan leader says the laws are aimed at stimulating production and promoting social justice.

Mr. Chavez, a leftist populist and former coup leader, was elected President three years ago on promises to end corruption and launch a social revolution to pull the oil-rich nation out of poverty. With the support of most Venezuelans, he swept away the country's institutions under a new constitution which was approved in a referendum two years ago. His leftist coalition party then won control of the Congress, crushing the two traditional parties that had alternated in power for almost 40 years.

But frustration over unemployment and crime has eroded Mr. Chavez' support. Opinion polls show he has lost almost 40 percent of his backing since his 1998 election victory.

But the Venezuelan leader has dismissed these surveys, saying they are politically-motivated and has vowed to continue what he has called his democratic and peaceful revolution.

But Monday's planned 12-hour work stoppage is aimed at preventing this. As opposition labor unions and other organizations have pledged to participate in the planned strike, the action could be shaping up as Mr. Chavez' first major challenge since taking office.