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Anniversary of Venezuela's Democracy Sees Hugo Chavez Foes and Allies

An opponent of Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez holds a Venezuelan flag that reads "Venezuela Free Democracy" on a street near the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. Opposition lawmakers gained a bigger presence and a platform to challenge President Hugo Chavez as a new National Assembly took office on Wednesday. They will have to contend with a president whose allies granted him expanded powers to pass laws by decree. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

An opponent of Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez holds a Venezuelan flag that reads "Venezuela Free Democracy" on a street near the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. Opposition lawmakers gained a bigger presence and a platform to challenge President Hugo Chavez as a new National Assembly took office on Wednesday. They will have to contend with a president whose allies granted him expanded powers to pass laws by decree. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The anniversary of Venezuela's democracy was highlighted by allies and adversaries of President Hugo Chavez alike taking to the streets of the capital by the thousands to stage rival demonstrations Sunday.

Opposition supporters gathered along an avenue in eastern Caracas and chanted anti-government slogans while waving red-yellow-and-blue Venezuelan flags and banners labeling Chavez a despot. Many of the president's critics expressed concerns that Chavez is amassing power and cracking down on dissent.

"In a country where dissidence is constantly attacked, there's no true democracy," said Virginia Zamora, who helped organize the anti-Chavez rally.

Chavez's supporters staged their own demonstration to defend their leader, disputing claims that the former paratrooper popularly known as "El Commandant" is becoming increasingly authoritarian as he attempts to steer this politically divided South American country toward socialism.

"Chavez has demonstrated again and again that he's a democrat. It's absurd that some think he's a dictator," said Alejandra Gonzalez, a single mother who supports Chavez for opening state-run markets that sell food at cut-rate prices and sending Cuban doctors into the slums to help the poor.

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Gonzalez scoffed at claims that Chavez is trampling democratic rights or intends to follow the example of communist Cuba's former leader, Fidel Castro, a mentor who has become one of Chavez's closest foreign allies.

Gonzalez proudly noted that Chavez and his allies have repeatedly defeated opposition candidates at the polls for more than a decade.

Jan. 23 is the anniversary of the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's last dictator. Since Chavez took office in 1999, it has become a date that underscores Venezuela's political divisions.

Some government opponents have likened Chavez to Perez Jimenez, saying that both attempted to silence the news media, used the judiciary to jail adversaries and violated basic freedoms such as protest rights.

"The big lesson from Jan. 23 is that we must fight for democracy and freedom every day," said opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado.

Most Venezuelans condemn Perez Jimenez's rule, but some elders praise him as an effective administrator and leader who diligently maintained public order while modernizing the South American country with major highways, bridges and urban residential complexes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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