CARACAS, Venezuela – Soldiers lobbed tear gas at tens of thousands of Venezuelans marching on a park near a military base to demand the armed forces' support in the ongoing strike against President Hugo Chavez. Nineteen people were injured, including one photographer who was hit by rubber bullets.
Opposition protesters regrouped as the gas clouds lifted, shouting "cowards" at hundreds of soldiers facing them with armored personnel carriers. Troops also kept back dozens of Chavez supporters protesting nearby.
The first marchers to arrive at Los Proceres park, which is outside the Fort Tiuna military base, stomped down barbed wire blocking the entrance, but they did not try to break past security lines.
Hector Castillo, a photographer for the local newspaper El Mundo, was injured by rubber bullets that some soldiers fired into the air, Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno said. Eighteen other people were treated for asphyxiation, he said.
The park is one of eight security zones in Caracas as decreed by Chavez. Protests are banned in those areas unless authorized by the defense ministry.
"All of this show of force is absurd," said Henrique Capriles, the opposition mayor of an eastern Caracas district. "People are tired of being assaulted and repressed."
The military — purged of dissidents after a brief April coup — has supported Chavez during the strike, which has paralyzed the world's fifth-largest oil exporter but has not rattled the president's resolve to stay in power.
Troops have seized oil tankers, commandeered gasoline trucks and locked striking workers out of oil installations. Top commanders have professed their loyalty to the government.
Speaking in his weekly radio and television address on Sunday, Chavez dismissed opponents as "fascists" manipulated by the media.
He also dismissed Infrastructure Minister Eliecer Hurtado, a retired general, and replaced him with Diosdado Cabello, the current interior minister. Chavez did not explain the change or say who would head the interior ministry, which commands the federal and secret police forces.
Venezuela's main television stations are not broadcasting any commercials except opposition advertisements promoting the strike. Media owners say they have been pushed into this stance because Chavez incites followers to attack reporters.
Chavez threatened to revoke the broadcasting licenses of television and radio stations if they "continue with their irrational insistence on destabilizing the country by supporting this fascist subversion."
Venezuela's largest labor confederation, business chamber and opposition parties began the strike Dec. 2 to demand that Chavez resign and call early elections if he loses a nonbinding referendum on his rule.
The National Elections Council scheduled the referendum for Feb. 2 after accepting an opposition petition signed by 2 million people.
Chavez says the vote would be unconstitutional, and his supporters have challenged it in the Supreme Court. He was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, and his term ends in 2007. Venezuela's constitution allows a recall referendum halfway through a president's term — August, in Chavez's case.
Opponents accuse the president of running roughshod over democratic institutions and wrecking the economy with leftist policies. The opposition has staged dozens of street marches, called for a tax boycott and held a two-day bank strike last week.
Chavez has threatened to order troops to seize food production plants that are participating in the strike and to fire or jail striking teachers and have soldiers take over their duties.
He already has fired 1,000 oil workers after some 30,000 of 40,000 workers joined the strike, which has caused fuel shortages and slowed oil exports to a trickle.
The strike is costing the country an estimated $70 million a day.
On Jan. 3, Chavez supporters and opponents clashed while police fired tear gas to keep the sides apart during an opposition march on Los Proceres. Two Chavez supporters died after being shot and at least 78 others were injured, five with gunshot wounds. It was unclear who fired on marchers.
Police also intervened Saturday when Chavez supporters blocked the route of a planned opposition march through the streets of Maracay, the military's nerve center, and on Margarita island off Venezuela's coast.
In Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton dismissed the possibility that his country was heading toward civil war.
"To have a civil war, two (sides) are needed, and the government doesn't want that," Chaderton told The Associated Press. "We are not preparing ourselves for civil war but to preserve peace and reconciliation."
The country's crude output is estimated at about 400,000 barrels a day, compared with the pre-strike level of 3 million barrels. Exports are a fifth of the 2.5 million barrels a day the country usually produces.
The country's $100 billion economy shrank an estimated 8 percent in 2002, largely due to constant political instability. Inflation has surpassed 30 percent while unemployment reaches 17 percent.
Negotiations sponsored by the Organization of American States have produced few results.