CARACAS, Venezuela – Tens of thousands of supporters of President Hugo Chavez marched through Caracas on Saturday to show faith in their leader despite an economic recession and revived opposition attempts to remove him from office.
The former army paratrooper organized the march to protest a Supreme Court ruling to absolve four military officers accused of leading an April 12-14 coup. Chavez supporters believe the ruling tried to justify a coup that ousted the president for two days and saw the dissolution of the constitution and democratic institutions.
"We cannot keep quiet! We must express our complete rejection of the Supreme Court's decision," Chavez told the crowd, punctuating his words by pumping his fists. He joined the 8-mile march as it ended in a rally near Congress.
At least 100,000 people waved Venezuelans flags and carried portraits of Chavez. One marcher shouted the names of the 11 justices who voted to absolve two army generals, a navy rear admiral and a navy vice admiral, citing lack of evidence. The crowd cried "out!" after each name. Eight justices voted to indict the officers.
Chavez was democratically elected in 1998 after spending two years in jail for leading a failed coup.
In April, rebel generals ousted and arrested him one day after 19 people died during an opposition march. He regained power after loyalist troops and thousands of civilians rallied to his defense.
One marcher shouted the names of the 11 justices who voted to absolve two army generals, a navy rear admiral and a navy vice admiral. The crowd cried "out!" after each name. Eight justices voted to indict the officers.
Congress, where Chavez supporters hold a slim majority, has appointed a commission to investigate the performance of each Supreme Court justice. Government allies threatened to remove justices accused of lying about their credentials to obtain their posts.
Opposition lawmakers refused to join the panel, calling it an affront to the democratic balance of power. Also, the ruling has lifted opposition hopes that the Supreme Court will indict Chavez in several pending cases.
Those include misusing public funds, accepting illegal campaign donations and moral responsibility in the April 11 slayings. Chavez denies any wrongdoing.
Opposition leaders are seeking ways to oust Chavez before his term ends in 2007. They complain he has fueled social class tensions with fierce rhetoric against Venezuela's "oligarchy" and ruined the economy with incoherent policies and constant bickering with the business community.
Chavez says he has been the victim of unfair coverage by the opposition-aligned news media. He accuses labor unions and business leaders of besieging him with strikes and protests out of resentment for his efforts to share the country's oil wealth with the 80 percent of Venezuelans who live in poverty.
Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton traveled to Washington last week to urge international support for the government's attempt revive dialogue with the opposition.
More bad news plagued Chavez this week: Venezuela's economy contracted 7 percent in the first half of the year. Chavez blamed an early year plunge in oil revenue and the April coup, which was preceded by a bitter oil strike that brought production to a near standstill. Venezuela, which is among the fourth largest oil suppliers to the United States, depends on oil for half of government income and 80 percent of export revenue.