Thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets on Sunday, allies and adversaries alike, marking the 53rd anniversary of Venezuela’s democracy. Opposition supporters met in one part of Caracas, chanting anti-government slogans and waving Venezuelan flags and calling Chavez a despot and claiming he is amassing power and cracking down on dissent.
In a country where dissidence is constantly attacked, there's no true democracy, said Virginia Zamora, who helped organize the anti-Chavez rally.
Meanwhile Chavez supporters staged their own demonstration to defend their leader, disputing claims that the president popularly known as El Comandante is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Chavez has demonstrated again and again that he's a democrat. It's absurd that some think he's a dictator, said Alejandra Gonzalez, a single mother who supports Chavez for opening state-run markets that sell food at cut-rate prices and sending Cuban doctors into the slums to help the poor.
Thousands of people gathered outside the presidential palace to listen to a speech by Chavez. Gonzalez, sneered at claims that Chavez is crushing democratic rights or intends to follow the example of communist Cuba's former leader, Fidel Castro.
Chavez proudly noted that he and his allies have repeatedly defeated opposition candidates at the polls for more than a decade.
They accuse me of being a dictator, he said. They must be crazy.
Chavez has said he hopes to win re-election in 2012 and govern until 2019, when he would turn 65 years old.
January 23rd is the anniversary of the overthrow of General Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's last dictator. Since Chavez took office in 1999, it has become a date that highlights Venezuela's political divisions.
Some government opponents have likened Chavez to Perez Jimenez, saying that both attempted to silence the news media, used the judiciary to jail adversaries and violated basic freedoms such as protest rights.
Most Venezuelans condemn Perez Jimenez's rule, but some elders praise him as an effective administrator and leader who diligently maintained public order while modernizing the South American country with major highways, bridges and urban residential complexes.
Anti-Chavez protests also took place in several cities abroad, including Miami, Madrid and Bogota, Colombia.
Democracy was lost in Venezuela a long time ago, said Marcos Ferreyra, a former Venezuelan soldier who demonstrated along with 300 others in Miami.