May 29, 2005
It is not like the president to miss a chance to speak. Yet Hugo Chavez was a no-show twice this weekend. His weekly television show "Hello, President" was canceled Sunday, one day after Chavez did not attend a large pro-government rally in downtown Caracas.
Communication and Information minister AndrÈs Izarra announced Sunday that the program would be replaced by the live broadcast of the World Volleyball League. The announcement was intended to end rumors about the whereabouts of Chavez, EFE reported.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel told tens of thousands of Chavez supporters on Saturday that the president would not speak at the rally, a rare occurrence at a march of that size.
"I understand your reaction, but we have to get used to - hear me well, comrades - Chavez being a human being, who cannot be everywhere at all times," said Rangel. The masses of red shirts and signs protesting the United States government quickly dispersed after hearing that Chavez would not speak.
Rangel closed the demonstration with a speech indicating that the government was preparing a 700-page file requesting the extradition of suspected terrorist Posada Carriles
"The government of the United States is trying to do everything it can to protect and save a terrorist, which implicates him with the terrorist politics that the US government has employed," said the Vice President.
Posada Carriles is currently being held by the United States and has been accused of planning the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people in 1976.
Rangel also said that "a second assault" on PDVSA was in the works and accused the media of portraying delinquent company.
Energy and Petroleum Minister Rafael RamÌrez also spoke, affirming that the government would defend Venezuela's oil and give oil wealth back to the people.
"We have to bring this discussion of the defense of our principal resource to the last corner of our country because here we are simply discussing the possibility of using oil to benefit our population," said RamÌrez.
Another official cited "security reasons" when she asked the crowd to move to a part of BolÌvar Avenue closer to the speaker's platform.
The march, which began in Petare and ended downtown with a rally on the Avenida BolÌvar, was "in defense of PDVSA (state oil company PetrÛleos de Venezuela) and against terrorism." Demonstrators held signs demanding the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles, denouncing the "imperialism" of the United States government and proclaiming the sovereignty of Venezuela.
AmÈrica Salas, a 48-year-old artesian, said she believed that opposition forces as well as the United States were infiltrating PDVSA.
"The proof is my intuition," said Salas. "The things that have happened in PDVSA make me think that the United States has its hand in there. They would earn more with the old PDVSA," said Salas, referring to the company's management before the national strikes ending in 2003.
Sentiment against the United States was growing, said Hewitt Andrea, a 45-year-old environment worker.
"Of course the (anti-US) feeling rises when the imperialists come to attack us," said Andrea. "We don't want war but we are prepared for one."
But Jes˙s, a 32-year-old teacher, said the march was not against the United States.
"It's to reaffirm our sovereignty," he said. "There aren't threats. We're just reaffirming that every country is free."
Many protesters did not want Venezuela to end diplomatic relations with Washington, as Chavez said the government might do if the U.S. does not extradite Posada Carriles.
"I don't think ending relations is necessary," said Salas. "I think the relations between the people (of both countries) should continue. You have to differentiate between the people and the government."
Several demonstrators said they thought allegations of corruption and decreased production at PDVSA was part of a media campaign. "It's possible that there's a drop of truth, but not at the level that the media says," said Salas.
Nelly, a mother from Maracaibo, said she had never missed a Chavez march. Her daughter, Natalie, said the president came to her house last year during a visit to the Vuelvan Caras mission, and helped secure medicine for her ill father.
"He helped us. He said, 'What do you need? How can I help,'" said Natalie.
"Before I was a chavista," said Nelly. "Now I'm more."
She added that she thought it was "obvious" that the United States wanted to invade Venezuela. "They want oil," she said. "They want everything for free."
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.