On death anniversary, Chavez revolution challenged

FABIOLA SANCHEZ FRANK BAJAK Associated Press Published:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The anniversary of Hugo Chavez's death was marked Wednesday with a mix of street protests and solemn commemorations that reflected deep divisions over the Venezuela he left behind.

Anti-government protesters blowing horns and whistles blocked avenues in Caracas' wealthier east with barricades of garbage and other debris, causing morning traffic jams.

But poorer neighborhoods were calm and people filed solemnly into the mausoleum containing Chavez's remains to pay respects to the combative, charismatic leader who transformed Venezuela during a 14-year reign, championing its downtrodden.

"I thank him because, in truth, he awoke me and my people," said Soraida Vega as she waited outside the hilltop Chavez mausoleum, where Cuban President Raul Castro earlier placed a flower on the late Venezuelan president's marble casket.

But while Chavez always said his socialist project would last decades, even some of his most fervent supporters are having their doubts about where it is going now that he is gone.

"When the head of household is absent, as we say around here, things start to get out of control," said Pablo Nieves, a community leader in the poor 23 de Enero district of Caracas. "If he were still with us, it would have never gotten to this."

Desperation is growing along with the length of the queues outside state-run markets that reflect the economy's downward spiral and helped trigger a wave of protests that have claimed at least 18 lives.

President Nicolas Maduro, the hand-picked successor of Chavez, organized 10 days of commemorative activities to mark the anniversary of the larger-than-life leader's death at age 58.

Maduro wore his presidential sash and waved at the crowd as he and his wife, Cilia Flores, rode Wednesday morning in black limousine the at the beginning of a parade to honor his predecessor.

Speeches were planned afterward by allied leaders including Castro and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Later Wednesday, director Oliver Stone's documentary "My Friend Hugo" debuts on state TV.

Chavez lifted a good share of the country's population above the poverty line by sharing the nation's oil export bounty, though critics said his generous social spending fed inflation and his interventionist economic policies stifled local production of non-oil goods.

The government has encouraged devotion to the late president that is sometimes religious. One small chapel in the 23rd de Enero district is dedicated to St. Hugo Chavez.

Beatriz Ramirez, a 55-year-old teacher and lawyer, laid flowers in the chapel. "All I learned of geography, history, mathematics, economy, politics, culture I learned from my comandante," she said.

While some anti-government demonstrators blocked roadways, the opposition did not call any organized protests for Wednesday in the capital.

The opposition is struggling to broaden its support and to overcome an elitist image -- a perception eagerly fed by government backers.

The government has denounced protests as an attempted coup, but has been harshly criticized by rights groups for letting menacing "collectives" of pistol-packing thugs on motorbikes join security forces in repressing protests.

More than 1,000 protesters have been detained and 72 people face charges, including eight members of the SEBIN political police.

Maduro's government has been unable to halt 56 percent annual inflation and crippling currency controls that have fueled a growing scarcity of consumer basics -- from milk to flour to cooking oil. The central bank's scarcity index was its highest-ever in January, at 28 percent.

While this nation has the world's largest proven oil reserves, former oil executives are driving cabs and workers from other collapsed industries struggle to find new lines of work.

Hugo Faundes studied culinary arts after being fired from the state-run oil company, PDVSA, for what he said were political reasons.

"Now that I've graduated there's nothing to cook," the Valencia man said with a dark laugh.

Tens of thousands have emigrated, not only in search of economic opportunities but also to escape the world's worst violent crime rates and a health care system nearing collapse.

The government has accused the United States of fomenting recent protests and kicked out three U.S. diplomats last month. That move followed a pattern: The day Chavez died, the government expelled two U.S. military attaches.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has lamented that his government is being blamed for things he says it never did.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, has long praised Chavez's commitment to improving the lives of Venezuela's poor and attended his funeral. But Meeks planned to sit out the commemoration, saying he was "a little nervous" about events in Venezuela.

"There was always opposition, but when there were demonstrations in the streets in the past I never heard of individuals being killed by anybody in the government," he said. "It gives me real concerns as to where the country is headed."

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Associated Press writers Christopher Sherman and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez contributed to this report.

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