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Foes of Chavez rally Venezuelans

President predicts he'll emerge from recall referendum

CARACAS -- Tens of thousands of opponents of President Hugo Chavez marched through Venezuela's capital yesterday, their biggest display of strength in campaigning ahead of a weekend referendum on his rule.

Chanting ''he's leaving, leaving, leaving," marchers wove through a city blanketed in posters urging citizens to vote Sunday: ''yes!" -- to recall Chavez -- or ''no!" -- to leave him in office.

''The 'yes' is going to triumph," said Luis Aparicio, 26, waving a Venezuelan flag as he marched. ''I want a much better country for my children. That man has done too much harm."

At stake is whether Chavez will serve out the remainder of a six-year term marked by huge public spending for the impoverished majority, a failed 2002 coup, and a general strike that failed to topple the 50-year-old former army paratrooper but crippled the economy.

Yesterday marked the last day of campaigning for the referendum, and a final chance for a strong show of force against a leader whose resurgent popularity among the poor has made unseating him a tough battle. Security officials estimated the crowd of opponents at more than 100,000. Before the march, Chavez supporters set off fireworks throughout the city, and the president predicted his ''inevitable" victory in the referendum.

Addressing a news conference, Chavez lashed out at his opponents, calling them lackeys of the United States. He accused President Bush of funding the recall campaign; he said he would not be surprised if the CIA was backing efforts to destabilize his government -- though he acknowledged he had ''no proof."

''At this stage, our victory is inevitable," Chavez said. ''The advantage that we have over the opposition is such that any surprises are impossible."

The South American country, which sits atop the Western Hemisphere's largest oil reserves and is the world's number five exporter, is bitterly polarized between those who consider Chavez the champion of the poor and those who say he is a leftist dictator-in-the-making. The United States has repeatedly denied supporting efforts to overthrow Chavez, who irritated Washington by forging close ties with President Fidel Castro of Cuba and criticizing US-led efforts to create a free trade zone encompassing North America, South America, and the Caribbean.

Venezuela's opposition fought for months for the referendum, convinced Chavez's defeat was a certainty. But his skillful campaigning and spending on programs for impoverished Venezuelans have led to a resurgence of support among the poor majority. Chavez spent millions of dollars to teach adults to read, brought Cuban doctors to the slums, and granted loans to small farm and business owners.

Neither side commands a convincing lead in opinion polls ahead of the referendum, which is taking place amid a crippling economic recession and 15 percent unemployment.

The splintered opposition has announced no clear plan for Venezuela -- or a candidate to succeed Chavez if he loses Sunday and early elections are called.

But Chavez's opponents insist his ouster is the only way to revive private investment, patch relations with Washington, and restore the democratic checks and balances they say Chavez -- who led a failed coup in 1992 before being elected president in 1998 -- has undermined.

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