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500,000 March in Venezuela Protest

March 07, 2004|From Times Wire Services

CARACAS, Venezuela — Blowing whistles and chanting, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched through the capital on Saturday in an effort to energize their fight for a referendum to recall President Hugo Chavez.

The march, the largest by the opposition this year, followed a week of violent clashes between troops and pro-referendum demonstrators in Caracas and other cities that left at least eight people dead.

Many of Saturday's demonstrators dressed from head to toe in the national colors of red, yellow and blue. Officials said at least 500,000 people took part.

"It doesn't matter how many obstacles they put in our way!" bellowed opposition leader Enrique Mendoza to cheers. "Don't let them intimidate us!"

Last week, the National Electoral Council dealt the referendum movement a blow, announcing that it had validated only 1.8 million of the more than 3 million signatures submitted by opposition leaders in December; 2.4 million valid signatures are required for a vote. Citing procedural violations, the council questioned more than 1 million signatures and said the vote could be held only if 600,000 were "re-confirmed."

Opposition leaders have appealed to the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center for support, saying the stability of the world's No. 5 oil exporter is at stake.

Street violence abated last week after the OAS and Carter Center promised to help ensure that citizens would have a chance to prove they had signed the petitions. Negotiations over the process continued Saturday.

Venezuela is sharply split between those who fear that Chavez is trying to install a dictatorship and those who say he has given a political voice to the impoverished majority. His six-year term ends in 2007.

Chavez says election officials have reason to suspect that some petitions are fraudulent. In a speech to foreign ambassadors Friday, he displayed copies of petition forms bearing the names of foreigners, minors and dead people. But he promised to respect the council's final decision on whether to hold a referendum -- and to abide by the outcome of any vote.

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