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Thursday March 6, 2014 MYT 12:50:55 AM
Thursday March 6, 2014 MYT 12:51:54 AM
by andrew cawthorne AND girish gupta
CARACAS (Reuters) - Followers of Venezuela's late socialist leader Hugo Chavez flooded the streets on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of his death, a sad but welcome distraction for his successor who has faced a month of violent protests.
A year after Chavez succumbed to cancer, his self-proclaimed 'son,' President Nicolas Maduro, faces the biggest challenge to his rule from a month-long explosion of anti-government demonstrations that have led to 18 deaths.
Wednesday's military parade and other events to honour 'El Comandante' were a chance for Maduro, 51, to reclaim the streets and show opponents that he too can mobilize his supporters.
"This anniversary is enormously sad. There's not a single day I don't remember Hugo," Chavez's cousin, Guillermo Frias, 60, said from Los Rastrojos village in rural Barinas state, where the pair used to play baseball as kids.
"He changed Venezuela forever, and we cannot go back. Maduro also is a poor man, like us. He's handling things fine. Perhaps he just needs a stronger hand," he told Reuters.
Tens of thousands of red-clad 'Chavistas' gathered for rallies in Caracas and elsewhere in honour of Chavez whose 14-year rule won him the adoration of many of Venezuela's poorest, while alienating the middle and upper classes.
Students, though, set up barricades in various streets of Caracas, and other cities nationwide, from before dawn. One 26-year-old man died in western Tachira state when he crashed his car swerving to avoid a roadblock set up by protesters.
Maduro was presiding over a parade in the capital before going to the hilltop military museum where Chavez led a 1992 coup attempt that launched his political career, and where his remains have been laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus.
"Chavez passed into history as the man who revived Bolivar," said Maduro, who often hails Chavez as South America's second "liberator" after independence hero Simon Bolivar.
During the lavish ceremony in Caracas, Maduro welcomed leftists including Cuba's President Raul Castro.
UKRAINE-STYLE CHANGE UNLIKELY
Chavez's own humble roots, anti-U.S. rhetoric, network of grassroots political organizations and lavish spending on slum projects made him a hero for many.
Yet his tough line against opponents, sweeping nationalizations, and rigid economic policies such as price and currency controls angered many others.
One year after his death, though, debate in Venezuela is no longer about Chavez, but his would-be heir.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, lacks Chavez's charisma and grip on the ruling Socialist Party, and has been unable to fix Venezuela's many problems, ranging from soaring prices, to deteriorating services, and runaway crime.
Yet 'Chavistas' largely remain loyal to their hero's dying wish that they support Maduro. So far, the protests have not spread far from a middle-class core, and the military seems loyal, making a Ukraine-style change of government unlikely.
"In spite of the turmoil, the government continues to benefit from strong support from low-income segments of the population and it remains in control of the oil industry, which is a critical element of the country's economic performance," ratings agency Moody's said in an analysis.
A long six-day national holiday for Carnival and now the anniversary of Chavez's death have taken some wind out of the protests, but a hard core of students and radical opposition leaders are still on the streets, and there are clashes daily.
Some opposition leaders called for a day without protests on Wednesday to show respect for Chavez's memory.
But students said they would not stop, and firebrand legislator Maria Corina Machado announced a march in the western city of San Cristobal where protests began and which has seen the worst of the unrest.
"Various presidents are here and we want to show them that Venezuela is sick," said Silvana Lezama, a 20-year-old student, standing in front of a Venezuelan flag as she manned a barricade in the upscale El Cafetal district of Caracas.
"We're not insulting Chavez, but when he died last year there was a week of mourning. Now we have 18 people dead from protests and they declared five days of Carnival holiday."
The numbers of demonstrators seldom go beyond a few thousand, a far cry from the vast street protests against Chavez that led to a brief military coup against him in 2002.
'CHAVEZ DIDN'T DIE'
State media have rolled out round-the-clock hagiographical coverage of the late president. Some Chavez loyalists seem barely able to use the word "death," preferring euphemisms such as his "physical disappearance" or "sowing in the sky".
"Chavez didn't die, he multiplied!" read a scrolling headline on state TV.
Government supporters interviewed by Reuters were disdainful of the demonstrators, but were also frank in their criticism of Maduro for failing to right the economy or forge his own path.
"This year has been one to remember our commander, and then rebuild our revolution. First we were in shock, but we had to breathe deep and keep fighting," said Marisol Aponte, a diehard 'Chavista' and teacher from a poor zone of west Caracas.
"Maduro's had it tough. He has to find his own path, his own ideas, his own speech. He's not Chavez. The commander is gone, we can't mourn him permanently. There's so much work to do, errors to correct."
She added that Maduro needs to purge his Cabinet and modernize Chavez-era social programs.
Some of Chavez's highest-profile friends, including leftist leaders from around Latin America, were in Caracas.
"It's our duty to defend elected presidents ... we do not accept coup attempts," Bolivia's President Evo Morales said, standing next to Maduro at the presidential palace.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Javier Farias in San Cristobal; Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Sophie Hares and Paul Simao)
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