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Anti-Chavez Demonstrations Intensify in Caracas

Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have mounted one of the largest and most boisterous anti-government demonstrations of recent months. In Caracas, U.S. officials are voicing increasing concern about instability in the country.

Waving Venezuelan flags, blowing whistles and banging pots, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched late Saturday from a central plaza in Caracas and overran a strip of highway that runs through the city.

Their demands remain the same: that embattled President Hugo Chavez call a referendum on his continued rule or resign outright. A woman who identified herself as Enza says Venezuela can no longer tolerate Mr. Chavez' ineptitude.

Enza says, in any civilized country on earth, when there is a crisis of governance, a leader must listen to his people. She says, if the people no longer want him, then he must go, or seek to re-legitimize his government. Enza says, here in Venezuela "we have a man who was democratically elected but who has veered from the democratic path."

Chavez opponents accuse the president of running the country's economy into the ground and manipulating the constitution to remain in power. An opposition-led national strike that has crippled Venezuela's oil production is entering its third week.

But backers of the populist president, many of them from the country's poorest sectors, remain defiant. Some have taken up positions around the presidential palace to prevent any coup attempt that may materialize. Asked if Mr. Chavez should agree to opposition demands, Rafael Torre and other Chavez supporters respond with derision.

Mr. Torre says the president will follow the constitution and that he is supporting Mr. Chavez in that effort. He says the president will not resign; nor will the people accept his resignation.

Mr. Torre goes on to say that he is not opposed to a referendum on the president's continued rule because he knows Mr. Chavez will win. But, he says, the so-called democratic opposition is not very democratic. Mr. Torre says the opposition wants a civil war.

Saturday, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Tom Shannon wrapped up a two-day visit to Caracas. Mr. Shannon, who met with representatives of both the government and the opposition, said he is even more concerned about Venezuela now than when he arrived, adding that the country could be on the verge of what he termed "a social confrontation."

Mr. Shannon said the solution is clear, but just how to arrive there is not. "We need some kind of early election," he explained. "It has been our [The United States'] view that what those early elections are [how they are organized] is something that only the Venezuelans can decide for themselves. And that it needs to be decided at the negotiating table."

Mr. Shannon reiterated the United States' support for Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, who has been trying to broker a deal between Venezuela's increasingly polarized political sectors.