CARACAS, Venezuela – A pipe bomb exploded in downtown Caracas, killing one person and injuring at least 14 as hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered for a rally in support of Venezuela's embattled president.
The explosion scattered shrapnel and damaged two buses outside a subway station Thursday as some 300,000 people were converging in the capital's to protest an economically devastating 53-day-old general strike aimed at ousting President Hugo Chavez.
A homeless man who was rummaging in the trash where the bomb was apparently hidden was killed in the blast, said Col. Rodolfo Briceno, the Caracas fire chief.
The rally went on as planned, with Chavez blasting his opponents as a "fascist oligarchy" and insisting that his left-wing, populist regime would survive despite the crippling effects of the strike on the world's fifth-largest oil-exporting nation.
Chavez accused strike leaders and the Venezuelan news media of using the strike to weaken the economy and orchestrate a coup like the one in April that briefly forced him from office.
The work stoppage prompted the government to suspend trading in the national currency, the bolivar, for five days.
The president lashed out at media coverage of the strike, condemning the nation's four private television stations as the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse" and threatening to rescind their broadcast licenses.
"The Venezuelan people don't want violence," he told the crowd. "But it's convenient to remind the coup-plotting, fascist oligarchy attempting to overthrow the Bolivarian government that the Venezuelan people are willing to defend their government."
The rally followed a decision earlier this week by Venezuela's supreme court to invalidate a planned Feb. 2 referendum aimed at forcing Chavez from power -- a nonbinding vote that he had declared unconstitutional.
As the chaos continued, delegates from six nations planned to meet Friday in Washington to discuss ways of resolving the crisis. Among the plans under discussion is one offered by former President Carter that would end the general strike in exchange for early elections.
Chavez said late Wednesday he welcomed international help but warned against outside intervention in Venezuela's internal affairs. He urged the delegates from the six nations -- Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States -- to recognize that his is an elected government and warned them not to give equal weight to an "undemocratic" opposition.
Opposition leaders contend Chavez's leftist policies have damaged business and scared away foreign investment.
Meanwhile, most blue-collar workers and half the administrators have returned to work at the state oil monopoly and production has surpassed 1 million barrels a day, the company's president, Ali Rodriguez, told the state news agency Venpres.
Union and striking oil executives disputed his claims about the workforce and insisted production is about 812,000 barrels a day. Pre-strike production was about 3.2 million barrels a day.