Venezuelans of all stripes take to the streets again

For the first time since the failed coup, opposition and supporters rally as Chávez calls for reconciliation.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets this week in the first mass demonstrations since President Hugo Chávez was reinstated after a failed coup three weeks ago.

This time, at least, there was no fighting. But May Day in Caracas gave stark proof of the deep fault lines running through this fractured society: Some 200,000 protesters marched against the president, while on the other side of town, about 100,000 pro-Chávez unionists and government supporters held their own rally to celebrate the failure of the coup.

"Venezuela is divided between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas. At the moment, there is nothing else," said opposition politician Carlos Ocariz.

At Wednesday's antigovernment protest, burly union bosses marched alongside bejeweled society matrons while erstwhile political rivals joined forces with civic pressure groups.

These unlikely alliances help explain the opposition's broad support, but analysts say that eventually that same diversity may yet prove to be the movement's most serious weakness.

"There is no organization. The opposition is still just a mass of unhappy people with one common goal: to get rid of Hugo Chávez," said public-affairs consultant Alfredo Keller.

Since he came to power in 1998, Mr. Chávez – a former paratroop colonel who himself once led an abortive coup – has managed to anger an impressively broad swathe of Venezuelan society.

Unions and business groups both accuse him of interference and cronyism; radical leftists say he has betrayed his own revolution; and right-wingers warn that he plans to impose a communist state.

"All the different social classes are uniting against Chávez," said Pedro Gonzalez, a lawyer marching on Wednesday with a peace sign in his hand.

Watching the protest from a nearby park bench, gardener Pedro Bustalde was not convinced. Like many government supporters, he believes that the opposition is a Trojan horse for traditional politicians and the economic elites.

"The people are still with the president. This march was organized by the rich – it's just the same old corrupt political parties, trying to get back into power," he said.

The landslide victory that first swept Chávez into power was widely seen as a reaction to the corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency of the two entrenched parties, Democratic Actions and the Christian Democrats.

Even as the tide turned against Chávez, Venezuelans have been unwilling to turn to the discredited traditional parties or inexperienced new ones, says political analyst Jose Vicente Leon. To channel their discontent, "they looked to civil institutions [such as unions, business groups, and the media], which were the only ones which still had a clean reputation," he says.

They also turned to the armed forces: Active and retired officers played a major role in the coup, which installed business leader Pedro Carmona as president.

But within hours, the broad alliance started to unravel. Unable – or unwilling – to form an inclusive cabinet, the rebels installed a far-right cabinet, which immediately tore up the 1999 Constitution and revoked the National Assembly and Supreme Court.

Unions and moderate opposition groups started to distance themselves from the de facto government, and three days after he was ousted, Chávez was restored to power by loyalist troops.

Since then, Chávez has called for reconciliation, but his opponents remain skeptical. Arguing that democracy has been compromised by his rule, they have called parliamentary elections and a referendum on his mandate.

"They can't accept that Chávez is back. It still bothers them, but if they want the government to leave, they're just going to have to follow the democratic rules," says Tarek William Saab, a pro-Chávez lawmaker who was imprisoned during the coup. "What happens will be decided by the people, not the opposition, and the people decide with elections."

But the president's opponents say Chávez has rigged the democratic rules in his favor. Under the Constitution, he cannot be forced from office in a referendum until 2004. Without a referendum, his term of office will not end until 2007.

"Chávez hasn't respected the rules of the game. So we feel there should be a constitutional amendment to shorten his term," says Mr. Ocariz.

With government and opposition at loggerheads, neither has much time to debate the country's declining economy or widespread poverty.

Some activists have suggested that the opposition form a new coalition party to confront the president. But according to Mr. Leon, such an alliance will be doomed: "How can you reconcile the different opposition groups behind one party? The moment they try to present their national project, they will split," he says.

According to Mr. Keller, those with most to gain may be the existing parties – the only groups with nationwide networks and experience in political maneuvering.

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