CARACAS, Venezuela – Thousands gathered in the Venezuelan capital to denounce President Hugo Chávez’s administration, calling it a “dictatorship” on Jan. 23. The date coincided with the 53rd anniversary of the fall of the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, one of Venezuela’s bloodiest strongmen.
Similar protests occurred simultaneously around the world, including in Madrid, Mexico City, Tegucigalpa, Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez dismissed the accusations of being a “dictator” at a counter, pro-government rally the same day.
“They accuse me of being a dictator,” Chávez said. “They must be crazy.”
“The last dictatorship in Venezuela fell on December 6, 1998,” he said, in reference to the day he was first elected president. “Venezuelans will elect me again in 2012,” he added.
“Every day, there will be more democracy in Venezuela – this democracy that gives more power to the people,” he added. “Democracy is as necessary to socialism as oxygen is to living things.”
The government’s numerous violations of the Venezuelan Constitution are grounds for the protests, said Félix Velásquez, a spokesperson for the NGO “Un mundo sin mordaza” (A world without muzzle), which organized the demonstrations.
“I am here to defend the political prisoners and those persecuted by the government,” said Marlene Bethancourt, who attended the rally in Caracas. “We cannot remain silent while others are imprisoned or exiled because [the government] didn’t like what they did or what they protested against.”
“The judiciary has been confiscated,” said Sobella Mejías, a former member of the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE), who also attended the rally in Caracas. “There is no independence of the powers, so that’s why we have to get out and fight.”
Caracas Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma and several opposition congressmen, including Richard Blanco and María Corina Machado, also attended the rally where thousands participated on Francisco de Miranda Avenue.
“Citizens need to fight for freedom, a right that is vulnerable in this country,” Blanco said. “I demand President Chávez stop persecuting political [opponents].”
Around the world
Many Venezuelans living in the United States joined the protests in several cities, including Washington, D.C., where they congregated at the Simón Bolívar statue at the S&T Triangle Park. Nearby, about a dozen members of El Salvador’s leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN, a guerrilla group in the 1980s, now a political party), gathered in support of the Venezuelan government.
“I’m Salvadoran, I lived in war times, I lived in a dictatorship, I was subjected to persecution, I saw a lot of people dying next to me when we went to protests, so what dictatorship is the Venezuelan opposition talking about?,” said Sonia Umanzor, a Salvadoran activist and FMLN supporter who was among the Salvadorans protesting the Washington, D.C. rally.
“We are against Chávez’s latest decisions, including the ‘fast-track’ law, limitations on private property and human rights violations,” said Juan Pío Hernández, 25, head of the D.C. chapter of “Un Mundo sin Mordaza.” “We are here to commemorate this date and also to call for an end to … dictatorship in Venezuela.”
The crowd, comprised mostly of young Venezuelans, was enthusiastic and loud, unfazed by frigid temperatures.
“I had to leave Venezuela very young,” said Daniela Bustillos, a 17-year-old high school student in Alexandria, Va. “I left Venezuela because of all that was going on. There is no freedom of expression, and I am here fighting to make my country what it used to be.”
In Madrid’s Parque El Retiro, about 200 protesters gathered at the statue honoring Venezuelan poet Andrés Eloy Blanco to demand Chávez be removed from office so “freedom” could return to Venezuela.
Protesters requested “the [return] of fundamental rights and freedom … in Venezuela,” said Luis Barreiro, president of the NGO Venezuelan Democratic Platform in Madrid.
“We do not want a national confrontation. We only want this kidnapping [of liberties] to stop. Because that’s what we are: Hostages of the government,” Williams Cárdenas, vice president of the Democratic Platform, said.
In New York City, Venezuelans and Cubans gathered in front of the Simón Bolívar equestrian statue located in Central Park to protest new measures giving absolute power to the president. The Venezuelan consul in New York, Carol Delgado, talked to them along with a small group of Venezuelans who support Chávez.