CARACAS, Venezuela – The embattled Venezuelan president — his rule under threat from turmoil in the strikebound oil-producing nation — left the country Wednesday to attend the inauguration of the new Brazilian president.
In what could be a daring move given the upheaval shaking Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez arrived in the Brasilia for the ceremony installing President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, whom he considers a friend and ally.
As Chavez arrived at his Brasilia hotel, he told reporters the strike will fail and he wasn't worried about being toppled from power while out of the country.
"It's not a strike, it is a conspiracy," he said. "Venezuelan workers are on the side of the government. ... The country hasn't stopped."
As the old year turned to new Wednesday, thousands of protesters filled a downtown highway in Caracas to celebrate and demand that Chavez hold a referendum on his embattled presidency.
The demonstrators waved flags, shot off firecrackers and chanted, "Not one step back," in a call to continue a month-long general strike aimed at ousting Chavez from power.
A few miles away, about 1,000 Chavez supporters held their own rally with a loud celebration party outside one of Venezuela's state-run oil company buildings.
The capital awoke to silence Wednesday morning and streets littered with exploded fire crackers and broken beer glass. People stayed home and shops were closed — either for the strike or for the holiday.
The dueling celebrations highlighted the divisions in this South American country, where even family holidays have turned political. New Year's is traditionally a family celebration in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
The oil industry, which produces one-third of the gross domestic product and 70 percent of export revenue, has been paralyzed by the strike, which began Dec. 2.
Chavez responded by firing dozens of strikers at Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. and importing gasoline and food to counteract shortages.
At the opposition rally, the rhetoric toward Chavez was bitter.
"He is a bandit, an illiterate. He doesn't know how to speak well; he's primitive," said Carmen Carrillo, 63, as she watched what the opposition called a Party for Peace.
Strike leaders said Tuesday that if Chavez does not bow to demands for a Feb. 2 referendum on his presidency, they will lead another march on the heavily defended presidential palace.
"I say let's go," said Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation. "And if they are going to kill us, let them kill us once and for all."
Nineteen people were killed in the opposition's last march on the palace, which prompted a failed two-day coup last April.
Already, protests have erupted at empty service stations. Many Venezuelans predict full-scale riots if Chavez cannot begin delivering gasoline.
Many citizens also are embarrassed that a nation with the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East has been forced to import gasoline from other countries.
At the pro-Chavez rally, the president's supporters listened closely to Chavez' year-end message. The speech, broadcast nationally and presented on a giant screen at the rally, offered little hope for a quick end to the crisis. The president instead braced his country for a tough year to come.
"We must prepare to face difficulties in the first quarter of the year: economic difficulties and difficulties in continuing all the government's plans," he said.
"Let's prepare ourselves for the battle, but prepare ourselves with the conviction that 2003 will be a good year. A year of bounty, progress, prosperity, and the consolidation of peace, to leave behind the winds of war that still blow."
The Chavistas, as the president's supporters are called, danced under Christmas lights as a 13-piece band played "gaitas," traditional holiday music, while fireworks lit the sky.
"Chavez is the president of the poor and we trust he'll make our lives better. That's why we're going to continue by his side in 2003," said 69-year-old Lourdes Cardenas. "United, we'll overcome adversity."