- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched through Caracas yesterday, blowing whistles and chanting to protest the rejection of a petition aimed at recalling President Hugo Chavez.

Protesters streamed toward a central avenue from several gathering points in the capital, many dressed from head to toe in the national colors of red, yellow and blue. Officials said at least 500,000 people took part.

“It doesn’t matter how many obstacles they put in our way,” bellowed opposition leader Enrique Mendoza to an eruption of cheers. “Don’t let them intimidate us.”

The march was peaceful, in contrast with last week’s demonstrations. At least eight persons were killed and hundreds arrested in five days of rioting set off by the National Elections Council’s decision.

One protester’s sign read: “I’m not armed. Don’t shoot! I’m Venezuelan.”

Emilia Duran, 72, wore a shirt that read “My signature counts.”

“I want my grandchildren to live in liberty,” she said.

The elections council accepted only 1.8 million of the 3 million-plus signatures submitted by opposition leaders in December. The minimum required is 2.4 million.

The council demanded confirmation of 1 million signatures, citing procedural violations. Another 140,000 signatures were rejected outright.

Opposition leaders have appealed to the Organization of American States and the U.S.-based Carter Center for support, saying the stability of the world’s fifth-biggest oil exporter is at stake.

Street violence abated last week after the OAS and Carter Center promised to help ensure that citizens would have a chance to prove they signed. Negotiations over the process continued yesterday.

Venezuela is sharply split between those who fear Mr. Chavez is trying to install a Cuba-style dictatorship and those who say he has given a political voice to the impoverished majority. The president’s six-year term ends in 2007. The constitution allows recalls halfway through an elected official’s term.

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