Caracas – Tens of thousands of supporters of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez took to the streets on Wednesday to mark the one-year anniversary of his death.
Chavistas dressed in red gathered for rallies in Caracas and elsewhere to honour the socialist leader, whose 14-year rule won him the adoration of many of Venezuela’s poorest.
“President Chavez gave us so much,” Luisa De Arcos, a local councillor from the poor community of Petare told Al Jazeera. “He trusted us – the people – and we trusted him.”
Irene Hernandez had tears in her eyes when she spoke about the former president. “He created food security programmes for the poor, invested in education and health centres and improved out lives a lot,” she told Al Jazeera.
A year after Chavez died of cancer, his self-proclaimed “son”, the incumbent President Nicolas Maduro, has faced the biggest challenge to his rule.
Anti-government demonstrations have led to clashes with security forces and 18 deaths.
Maduro used his speech commemorating Chavez’s death to cut diplomatic ties with Panama, after the Central American country urged the Organisation of American States to convene a meeting to “analyse” recent protests in Venezuela.
“I have decided to break off ties and freeze business relations with Panama,” he said.
“I’m not going to accept anyone conspiring against our country,” Maduro said, after accusing Panama President Ricardo Martinelli of provoking foreign intervention in Venezuela.
Chance for Maduro
Wednesday’s military parade and other events to honour Chavez were a chance for Maduro to reclaim the streets and show opponents that he too can mobilise.
“Maduro has been trying to bring Venezuelans together,” Juan Carlos Oborio, a student, told Al Jazeera.
But the former bus driver and union activist lacks Chavez’s charisma and control over the ruling Socialist Party.
He has been unable to fix Venezuela’s problems, which include soaring prices, deteriorating services and rising crime.
Yet Chavistas largely remain loyal to their hero’s dying wish that they support Maduro.
“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,” Marisol Aponte, a Chavista and teacher from a poor area of west Caracas, said.
“Chavez left a legacy so we can continue. Maduro is following the same path as Chavez, nothing much has changed. The people are behind him.”
A long weekend and national holiday for Carnival and the anniversary of Chavez’s death have taken some of the steam out of the country’s protests.
Nevertheless, opposition leaders and students are still demonstrating.
Some opposition leaders called for a day of peace on Wednesday to show respect for the late leader.
But students said they would not stop protesting and opposition leader Maria Corina Machado announced a march in the western city of San Cristobal, which has seen the worst of the unrest.
“They’re killing people and holding a national party, so why should we respect the day of Chavez’s death?” said Jose Garcia, 26, wearing a balaclava and clutching stones to throw at police in Caracas’ Plaza Altamira.
Some of Chavez’s high-profile friends, including leftist leaders from around Latin America, were in Caracas.
“We’re here, not only to remember the death of our comrade and brother Hugo Chavez, but also his struggle for Latin American unity, democracy and peace,” Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, said.
“We also want to proclaim our solidarity for the Venezuelan people, the Bolivarian revolution. It’s our duty to defend elected presidents. “We do not accept coup attempts.”
Maduro presided over a parade in Caracas 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.
– additional reporting by Chris Arsenault in Caracas