Sunday 29 February 2004
CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President Bush an "asshole" on Sunday for meddling, and vowed never to quit office like his Haitian counterpart as troops battled with opposition protesters demanding a recall referendum against him.
Chavez, who often says the U.S. is backing opposition efforts to topple his leftist government, accused Bush of heeding advice from "imperialist" aides to support a brief 2002 coup against him.
"He was an asshole to believe them," Chavez roared at a huge rally of supporters in Caracas.
The Venezuelan leader's comments came as fresh violence broke out on the streets of the capital, where National Guard troops clashed with opposition protesters pressing for a vote to end his five-year rule.
Military helicopters roared in low runs overhead as soldiers fired tear gas and plastic bullets to repel several hundred opposition demonstrators who threw stones and set up burning barricades in eastern Caracas late into the night.
Troops and opposition activists also skirmished in other cities.
"We call on the country to continue with peaceful resistance," opposition leader Enrique Mendoza said. "This fight will last as long as necessary."
A soldier and a cameraman were shot and injured during the clashes and an opposition protester was wounded in the head by gunmen firing from motorbikes, witnesses and officials said.
Electoral authorities, citing the need to preserve peace in the country, said they were postponing until Monday the preliminary results of their verification of the opposition's petition for a recall vote.
One demonstrator carried a banner reading: "Bye bye Aristide, Chavez you're next," referring to Haiti's leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who fled into exile on Sunday in the face of an armed rebellion.
TENSIONS AHEAD OF POLL RULING
But the firebrand populist vowed to defeat any attempt to unseat him and threatened to cut off oil supplies to the United States from the world's No. 5 crude oil exporter should Washington try an invasion or trade sanctions.
"Venezuela is not Haiti and Chavez is not Aristide," he said.
Tens of thousands of Chavez supporters marched earlier on Sunday to protest what they condemned as U.S. meddling in Venezuelan affairs. The State Department routinely dismisses the president's accusations.
The referendum campaign is the latest political fight for Chavez, who survived the short-lived 2002 coup and a strike last year by opponents who fear his self-styled "revolution" is slowly turning Venezuela into a Cuban-style communist state.
Since his first election in 1998, the president has vowed to improve the lives of the impoverished who see little of the country's oil wealth. But his opponents say he has failed and has instead pushed the country into economic ruin.
Political tensions have flared again recently as setbacks delayed a ruling by the National Electoral Council on whether to allow the recall referendum to go forward. Two protesters were shot and killed on Friday during an opposition march.
The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center, which are observing the referendum process, appealed for calm on Sunday ahead of the council decision.
Electoral authorities said they would make a preliminary ruling Monday on whether the opposition collected the minimum 2.4 million valid signatures required for a vote. The opposition says it handed over 3.4 million signatures.
Opposition leaders accuse pro-government officials in the electoral council of trying to block the poll by disqualifying many valid signatures. Chavez says his opponents' petition is riddled with forgeries.