Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched through the streets of Caracas Thursday demanding that President Hugo Chavez hold early elections. While the protest was underway, a top member of Venezuela's joint chiefs of staff turned in his resignation - warning of deep splits within the military.
Shouting anti-Chavez slogans and carrying blue, red and yellow Venezuelan flags, Venezuelans marched through downtown Caracas Thursday calling for the populist President to hold early elections, or step down.
Protest organizers billed their demonstration as the "Take-over of Caracas" and said one million protesters would participate to show their discontent with Mr. Chavez, who has governed the oil-rich nation since 1999.
On April 11, a similar opposition march of some 600,000 people led to violence between pro and anti-Chavez forces prompting some elements of the military to overthrow Mr. Chavez. However, he returned to power less than 48 hours later on the shoulders of his supporters.
This time, the march through Caracas took place without major incidents reported. However, there was some violence reported on several highways leading to the capital where reports say Chavez supporters tried to block protesters from reaching the capital.
Mr. Chavez, who is in the midst of a six-year term, has offered to hold a referendum in August 2003 on whether he should step down. But for Thursday's protestors this is out of the question.
English Interpreter Luis Sayago says Mr. Chavez must leave office now. "It's a good demonstration of what the real feeling of this country," he said. "The feeling of this country is that we're fed up with Chavez, we want no more Chavez here. We are fed up with this guy, and we're not going to take it any more."
Other demonstrators want the Venezuelan military to intervene.
Company administrator Jose Manuel Ranilla says he does not want to see another coup attempt, like the one in April. But he does think the armed forces should force the populist President to hold an early referendum. "What we want, he says, is a democratic solution let us go and vote now whether we want Mr. Chavez or not, and not wait until next year," said Jose Manuel Ranilla.
While the protest was underway, a top member of Venezuela's Joint Chiefs Staff, Rear Admiral Alvaro Martin Fossa, tendered his resignation. In a public announcement carried by several Venezuelan television stations, Admiral Fossa complained of irregularities, and warned President Chavez that the Armed Forces are disunited, unhappy and politicized.
However, he stopped short of directly criticizing the Venezuelan leader a former army paratrooper who led an unsuccesful coup against the government in 1992.
The navy officer was later placed under arrest Thursday when he turned himself in to the Defense Ministry, according to his lawyer.
Mr. Chavez was first elected President in 1998 with an overwhelming majority, and again in 2000 under a new constitution. Since then his support has dropped dramatically over the past year but many poor Venezuelans still back the populist leader because of his social programs. This was evident near the Presidential Palace, where several hundred pro-Chavez supporters gathered early Thursday to hear speeches supporting the President. Many wore the red berets that Mr. Chavez customarily dons along with military fatigues.
Luis Salazar says he travelled 12 hours to Caracas from eastern Venezuela to defend what he called the revolutionary process. He said the opposition should respect Venezuela's constitution which provides for a recall referendum.
He said: "If they want to get rid of the President they should wait because the constitution provides for those steps. But if they act unconstitutionally, we will defend the President until death."
Thursday's march was organized by a group called the Democratic Coordinator, which includes business, labor, and civic groups. In a speech to the protestors Thursday, the head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation, Carlos Ortega, called on Mr. Chavez to heed the calls for early elections by next week. Otherwise, Mr. Ortega warned, a general strike will be called on October 21.
Meantime, commenting on the impact of the protest, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said normalcy prevailed throughout the country. He also dismissed threats of a general strike.