A crowd of pro-opposition students and other critics of Hugo Chavez’s government marched on Caracas’ supreme court on Sunday to demand proof that the cancer-stricken Venezuelan leader is still alive and fit to govern.
Carrying banners that read “Give us the truth!” and “No to Cuban influence!”, protesters chained themselves outside the court as they rallied against Chavez and vice president Nicolas Maduro.
“We want to know what is going with Chavez’s health, if he is alive or dead, and we want elections,” said Dario Alberici, 55, a public accountant at the protest.
Underlining the political polarisation that has divided Venezuela during Chavez’s 14-year rule, pro-government students also held a rally in support of the president and his ministers. Supporters of the ailing socialist leader danced and sang his praises, hoping that Chavez will make a full recovery from cancer.
“We are showing our love for the president,” said Anaida Nunez, 30, who works in a government food program and wore a green T-shirt with the words “We are millions of Chavez.”
“We are rejecting this small group of young people who are sadly demanding that the president come out,” she said.
Nation ‘on edge’
With Chavez not seen in public, apart from one set of photos, since a December 11 cancer operation, Venezuelans are on edge waiting for developments amid a sea of rumours.
In January, Venezuela’s top court endorsed the postponement of Hugo Chavez’s inauguration and ruled that the president and his deputy would continue in their roles, despite opposition complaints.
Officials say Chavez is in a Caracas military hospital after returning from Cuba two weeks ago, battling for his life. Though he is breathing via a tracheal tube, unable to speak, and undergoing chemotherapy, the president continues to rule via written and other communications, officials say.
The stakes of Chavez’s health are also high for the region. The firebrand Venezuelan leader has been the most strident Latin American critic of the United States, and financed hefty aid programmes for leftist governments from Cuba to Bolivia.
Bolivian president Evo Morales, a political ally and close friend, told reporters on Saturday night that he is hopeful of a full recovery for Chavez.
Opponents, though, accuse Maduro and other allies of lying about Chavez’s condition. And there have been media and internet accounts that Chavez may have died – all emphatically denied by the government.
On the streets on Caracas, Chavez supporters are hanging on to hope that he is still alive. “We don’t need to see pictures. We know he’s alive,” one protester said.
The government has only released one set of photos of Chavez, showing him bedridden and smiling with his two daughters in a Havana hospital on February 15, three days before he returned to Caracas.