Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched Sunday in Caracas to show their support for populist President Hugo Chavez. The demonstration came just three days after the opposition mobilized its own massive march calling on Mr. Chavez to resign. But addressing the marchers Sunday, Mr. Chavez vowed to remain in power.
The march Sunday through Caracas was festive, as pro-Chavez supporters chanted, danced to salsa music, and waved blue, yellow and red Venezuelan flags. Many wore red berets in imitation of Mr. Chavez, a former army paratrooper and unsuccessful coup leader who was elected president in 1998.
The demonstration, billed as the March for Peace and Democracy, was organized to celebrate Mr. Chavez' return to power after he was deposed briefly in April. Elements of the military overthrew Mr. Chavez after violence broke out on April 11th following an opposition protest. Loyalist troops and his supporters returned him to office within 48 hours.
Pro-Chavez marcher Rafael Leon says he turned out for Sunday's demonstration to show his opposition to any attempt to remove Mr. Chavez from power. Mr. Leon, an economist, praised Mr. Chavez' leadership.
"He's the best president for this country. For many, many years, for about 60 years, we have not had a president like Chavez. He's the best," he said.
Others like history teacher Ulvio Millar says Mr. Chavez should be allowed to complete his six-year term. He said the war now is against poverty, and the opposition should be a constitutional opposition, and let him carry out his policies.
On Thursday, Venezuelan opposition groups mobilized an estimated one million people to march through Caracas, demanding Mr. Chavez resign or call early elections. They set an October 15 deadline for Mr. Chavez to meet their demands, or face a general strike on October 21.
The Venezuelan leader, wearing a red beret and the Venezuelan flag draped around his back like a cape, participated in Sunday's march, often climbing down from his vehicle to mingle with the crowd. Later, addressing the huge crowd without the flag on his shoulders, Mr. Chavez rejected the opposition demands for early elections.
He said. There will be no Presidential elections until December 2006. He went on to warn those who may be plotting to overthrow him that the Venezuelan people will defend the revolution. Mr. Chavez also poked fun at the opposition demands that he step down later this week, or face a general strike. To massive cheers, he vowed to stay in power.
"I will resign," he said, "I will resign from taking any action that betrays the will of the Venezuelan people."
Mr. Chavez was overwhelmingly elected President in 1998 on promises to end corruption and alleviate the poverty that affects up to 80 percent of Venezuela's 24 million people. He was re-elected again in 2000 under a new constitution for a six year term. Since then, his popularity has declined, though surveys show he still has the support of about 30 percent of the population.
Mr. Chavez has offered to submit to a recall referendum as provided for under the constitution, but not until August 2003. But the opposition, made up of business, labor and civic groups, says this is too long to wait, claiming Mr. Chavez' populist policies have undermined the economy of the oil rich nation.