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Chavez Backers Head to Venezuelan Capital

August 23, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Tens of thousands of President Hugo Chavez’s supporters gathered in the capital Saturday to help the leftist leader counter a renewed opposition push for a referendum aimed at ousting him.

Throngs of ``Chavistas,″ as the president’s backers are known, congregated for a march through the capital to show the president’s foes he still commands high support among the nation’s poor majority.

``We are poor and we back the president,″ said Yaritza Alfaro, a 38-year-old housewife who was convinced the opposition push for an early vote on Chavez’s rule would not prosper. ``We won’t permit a referendum.″

The march formed part of a week-long celebration touting government social programs that have convinced many Chavez is their only hope.

Opponents marched by the hundreds of thousands this week and delivered more than 2 million signatures demanding the vote.

Undaunted, Chavez is plowing ahead with his ``Bolivarian Revolution,″ a variable mix of socialism and free markets aimed at appealing to the country’s poor majority.

Under Chavez, Venezuela has lurched from crisis to crisis and could soon see more upheaval as the opposition presses for a recall. Critics label him a power-hungry populist whose social agenda comes second.

Opponents accuse Chavez of amassing authoritarian power, steering Venezuela toward Cuban-style communism, sympathizing with leftist Colombian rebels and seeking to destroy Venezuela’s private sector.

Yet Chavez has survived a 2002 coup and a two-month general strike this year. His standing among voters _ about 30 percent by most polls _ is enhanced by programs directed at the poor.

More than 900,000 illiterate adults are getting free reading and writing classes using methods developed in Cuba. Cuban doctors work for free in Caracas slums.

More than 300,000 people have received government loans to start small businesses. A land reform program has given more than 13,000 citizens land titles. Indigenous people have gained unprecedented constitutional rights, including the right to own their land.

It was something more personal than a food bag that sold Jesus del Carmen Vivas on Chavez.

At a rally two years ago, the single mother of five grabbed the president’s arm and pleaded for justice for her 9-year-old daughter, who had been raped.

Days later, the government sent lawyers to help her pursue the criminal. The man is still at large. But the gesture gave Vivas unshakable faith in the president.

``I just have to talk to Chavez again,″ she said. ``I just haven’t had time, being both a mother and a father for my children.″

Chavez’s personable style _ and a lack of an equally charismatic challenger _ have persuaded millions that he is their only hope, even as Venezuela plunges deeper into misery under his administration.

``Even though the government hasn’t done anything for me, I have faith. I pray for Chavez,″ said Betty Granas, 47, a coffee vendor.

Granas attends every Chavez rally she can and helps collect signatures for a recall referendum against the anti-Chavez mayor of Caracas.

She’s done so despite having lost her home in floods, living briefly in cardboard boxes and sending her only son to a shelter.

She pleaded for a free bag of food but the soldiers turned her away.

``My moment just hasn’t come,″ she said, her eyes welling with tears.

With unemployment nearing 20 percent and crime rising, others are fed up with waiting.

Maria Isabel Peny lugged away a food bag and stopped to chat with a sidewalk drink vendor. Both vowed to vote against Chavez in a referendum.

``We’re too old to be fooled,″ said the vendor, Giovanni Ilargaza, 38. ``If that man,″ he added, pointing to Chavez’s picture, ``could just provide employment and security, no one would kick him out.″

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