Anti-Chavez March Draws Thousands in Venezuela

Thousands marched Saturday in the biggest show of public support yet for Venezuela's main opposition presidential candidate, who pledged to undo what he called the ills of President Hugo Chavez's government.

Manuel Rosales accused the government of mismanaging the country's oil wealth and ignoring crime. He also played on fears that Chavez's close friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro was leading Venezuela down the same path as the communist island.

"They say the Venezuelan people rule — that's a lie," said Rosales, governor of oil-rich, western Zulia state, who faces Chavez in the Dec. 3 election. "(We have) a government that is a puppet of a communist, totalitarian system. ... We have a government that is governing from Cuba."

Venezuelan authorities had promised to have as many as 2,500 officers on the streets to ensure security amid concerns about violence as Rosales' supporters traversed sectors of the capital that are pro-Chavez.

A government helicopter flew overhead and a heavy police presence was on hand, but there were no reports of disturbances.

Caracas' metropolitan police estimated the crowd at about 9,000, but reporters on the scene estimated the turnout was more than 10,000. The crowd packed full a 2-mile avenue.

"I'm marching for a different future, for better education," said Julia Pena, a 50-year-old teacher, who came out to show her support for the opposition for the first time since April 2002, when a short-lived coup toppled Chavez before he returned amid a popular uprising.

Chavez grabbed headlines recently when he called President Bush "the devil" and slammed U.S. leaders for trying to block his country from taking a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Rosales also appeared to rule out the possibility of a boycott against the Dec. 3 presidential election, urging people to vote despite worries about transparency and electronic voting machines. Major opposition parties boycotted congressional elections last year over such concerns.

"We must vote on Dec. 3 and not believe in the threats of the government," he said. "That doesn't help anybody."