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Wednesday, 27 February, 2002, 23:52 GMT
Venezuela divided over Chavez
Pro-Chavez marchers
Venezuela's charismatic leader arouses strong feelings
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By Adam Easton
BBC correspondent in Caracas

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have taken part in rival demonstrations in support of the country's beleaguered President Hugo Chavez - and against him.

Oil-rich Venezuela is deeply divided over its charismatic president.

His opponents accuse him of damaging the country with "leftist reforms", but his supporters say his policies are designed to improve the lives of Venezuelans, most of whom live in poverty.

President Chavez
Mr Chavez's popularity has plummeted from 80% to 30%
Dressed in black to commemorate the 13th anniversary of countrywide riots which left hundreds dead, opponents of Mr Chavez demanded his immediate resignation.

Their march through Caracas was led by the country's largest union federation, and main opposition party.

When they arrived at the nation's parliament, they handed in a petition calling for the revision of 49 decree laws which have been criticised for being hostile to private investment and union freedom.

Just a few streets away, thousands of Mr Chavez's supporters marched on the presidential palace to give their public backing to his social reforms, which include increased spending on education and healthcare, and land reform.

Looming challenges

Caracas is getting used to such marches.

In three years, Mr Chavez's popularity has plummeted from 80% to around 30%, amid growing political and economic instability.

His most recent challenge has come from the country's main industry, the state oil company, which has the power to bring the nation to its knees.

Further challenges lie around the corner - opposition union leader Carlos Ortega says the country should prepare for national conflict, and a possible general strike.

See also:

26 Feb 02 | Americas
Chavez unmoved as officers desert
18 Feb 02 | Americas
Third officer demands Chavez quit
11 Feb 02 | Americas
Venezuelan rebel army officers freed
08 Feb 02 | Americas
Venezuelans march against president
04 Feb 02 | Americas
Chavez marks his failed coup
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