CARACAS, Venezuela – Allies and adversaries of President Hugo Chavez took to the streets of the capital by the thousands Sunday, staging rival demonstrations to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of Venezuela's democracy.
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 Comandante" 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.
Gonzalez, who gathered outside the presidential palace with thousands of other government backers to listen to a speech by Chavez, scoffed at claims that her favorite politician 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.
Chavez proudly noted that he and his allies have repeatedly defeated opposition candidates at the polls for more than a decade.
"They accuse me of being a dictator," he said. "They must be crazy."
Chavez said he hopes to win re-election in 2012 and govern until 2019, when he would turn 65 years old.
"I'd be an old man," Chavez told the crowd.
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.
Anti-Chavez protests also took place in several cities abroad, including Miami, Madrid and Bogota, Colombia.
"Democracy was lost in Venezuela a long time ago," said Marcos Ferreyra, a former Venezuelan soldier who demonstrated along with 300 others in Miami.
Associated Press writer Gisela Salomon contributed to this report from Miami.