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Chavez Supporters Come Together for March

August 23, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ President Hugo Chavez celebrated the midpoint of his six-year term Saturday by telling hundreds of thousands of supporters he would not bow to efforts to oust him through the ballot box.

As many as 500,000 supporters gathered on a downtown avenue, according to Caracas fire officials, to hear Chavez and to rebuff an opposition push for a referendum on Chavez’s rule. Organizers claimed as many as 3 million people were present.

``Victory is ours, whatever the cost!″ Chavez told the cheering crowd. ``We are prepared for any sacrifice to fulfill our promise to Venezuela. Long live the revolution!″

Many wore red shirts and berets identifying them with Chavez’s ``Bolivarian Revolution,″ a left-wing movement the president and his backers claim is aimed at redressing the inequalities of wealth in oil-rich Venezuela.

They accompanied the president in singing ``Happy Birthday, Bolivarian Government.″

Streams of ``Chavistas″ blew whistles, danced to drum beats and set off fireworks as they marched through streets and highways before converging on Bolivar Avenue ahead of Chavez’s speech.

``I’m celebrating these three years of government. Chavez is a good man and he’s helping us poor people _ and the poor are the majority,″ said Dilia Martinez, 43, who rode a bus for 10 hours from the state of Monagas to join the gathering.

Chavez’s opponents staged a mass march Wednesday to deliver more than 2 million signatures demanding a recall referendum on the president’s rule. They say his government has lost popularity by dividing the population and increasing poverty.

Still, the president retains support, particularly among the country’s huge underclass.

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

Venezuela has suffered almost two years of intense political turmoil under Chavez, including an April 2002 coup attempt, a two-month general strike earlier this year and several one-day work stoppages.

The economy has been gripped by recession and unemployment has topped 20 percent, according to government figures. More than half the work force are employed in the informal economy as street vendors and house cleaners, for example.

Chavez’s policies, meanwhile, have been directed at improving the lot of the poor majority. As part of a deal to supply oil to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Venezuela has imported hundreds of Cuban doctors to work for free in the hillside shanty towns surrounding Caracas.

Thousands of illiterate adults are getting free reading and writing classes using methods developed in Cuba.

The government has also handed out land titles to rural peasants and some urban squatters. Indigenous people have gained unprecedented constitutional rights, including the right to own their land.

But the opposition says Chavez is trying to install Castro-style communism. They claim policies such as strict exchange controls are permanently damaging the economy and his fiery rhetoric against globalization has spooked investors.

Chavez denies the charges. He blames the wealthy elite and corrupt remnants of previous governments for using their influence to try to topple him from power.

``Those coup-plotters won’t let Chavez govern. Things might be better now if they’d given him a chance,″ said Jose Leon, a gap-toothed fisherman from the eastern state of Anzoategui sporting a red beret at the march.

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