December 21, 2014
Venezuela's Chávez remembered with pomp and protests
A year after Chávez succumbed to cancer, his self-proclaimed 'son,' President Nicolás Maduro, faces the biggest challenge to his rule from a month-long explosion of anti-government demonstrations that have led to 18 deaths.
The military parade and other events to honor '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," Chávez'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 reporters.
Tens of thousands of red-clad 'Chavistas' gathered for rallies in Caracas and elsewhere in honor of Chávez 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 presided over a parade in the capital before going to the hilltop military museum where Chávez led a 1992 coup attempt that launched his political career, and where his remains have been laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus.
"Chávez passed into history as the man who revived Bolivar," said Maduro, who often hails Chavez as South America's second "liberator" after independence hero Simón Bolívar.
During the lavish ceremony in Caracas, Maduro welcomed leftists including Cuba's President Raúl Castro.
A long six-day national holiday for Carnival and now the anniversary of Chávez'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 to show respect for Chávez'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 Chávez, 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."