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Tens of Thousands of Venezuelans Protest Hugo Chavez

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans opposed to President Hugo Chavez took to the streets Saturday, blaming him for rolling blackouts, water rationing, widespread crime and other problems they say are making daily life increasingly difficult.

Chavez backers flooded the capital's avenues with an equally impressive demonstration as the socialist leader confronts mounting criticism and an emboldened opposition ahead of upcoming congressional elections.

Waving Venezuelan flags, protesters accused Chavez of dragging the politically divided South American country into a severe crisis as he accelerates his drive to transform it into a socialist state.

"Chavez is leading the country to ruin," said 79-year-old Olga Damjanovich at the opposition protest. "He's controlled all the country's institutions for more than a decade, so how could it be possible that he's not responsible for the problems weighing down on us?"

Many wore T-shirts that read: "3 Strikes: Blackouts, Water Rationing and Crime. Chavez, You've Struck Out!"

Chavez backers rebutted the criticism, accusing opponents of exaggeration.

"Things aren't all as we would like them to be, but we know that El Comandante (Chavez) is doing what he can to help us, the poor," said Yorbert Rodriguez, a 39-year-old bricklayer.

Political rivals organized Saturday's demonstrations to coincide with the 52nd anniversary of an uprising that toppled Venezuela's last dictator, Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez. Chavez allies argued that democracy is growing stronger, while government foes said their liberties are slipping away.

Opposition parties hope to make a strong showing in September's elections by holding Chavez responsible for rampant crime, a recent currency devaluation widely expected to boost inflation — which ended 2009 at 25 percent — and electricity rationing.

Chavez, a tireless campaigner who remains popular, has overcome bigger obstacles during his 11-year presidency. The former paratroop commander emerged unscathed from a botched 2002 coup and devastating two-month strike the following year.

Margarita Lopez Maya, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela, believes increasing numbers of Venezuelans are "putting the president's capacity to resolve problems in doubt," but they haven't embraced the opposition as a result.

"There may be doubts — even disapproval, but there's no alternative these people believe in," she said.