Venezuelans hold rival May Day marches as vote dispute drags on

CARACAS Wed May 1, 2013 6:55pm EDT

1 of 17. Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C) waves to supporters during a May Day rally in Caracas May 1, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Opposition and government supporters flooded Venezuelan streets in rival May Day marches on Wednesday as a continuing dispute over the results of last month's presidential vote kept political tensions high in the OPEC nation.

On Tuesday, opposition deputies were beaten in a fracas in Congress resulting from their refusal to recognize the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, who narrowly won the April 14 election triggered by the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

Government officials, meanwhile, have threatened to jail opposition leader Henrique Capriles for allegedly orchestrating violent demonstrations that killed nine people after the vote. Most foreign governments, with the exception of the United States, have recognized the election results.

The volatile situation underscores the challenges of the "Chavismo" movement to maintain Hugo Chavez's self-styled revolution without his messianic but micro-managing leadership.

"We're not afraid of the government. Even if they threaten, beat, and insult us, we're going to continue demonstrating like we are today," said Graciela Perez, 61, a housewife, marching through the affluent east side of the capital of Caracas.

"We only want the truth to be known - that they stole the elections."

A renewal of the post-vote violence appeared unlikely because the rival marches in Caracas, involving tens of thousands of people on each side, did not cross paths. Similar marches took place elsewhere in the country.

Maduro, a 50-year-old former bus driver, will likely use the labor day Monday celebration to tout the working-class roots that helped make him Chavez's chosen successor.

"We're here in the streets because this is a workers' government that represents the people," said Luis Graterol, an airport worker at a pro-government march in central Caracas.

IMAGE OF CHAVEZ

Vendors sold pictures of the late Chavez to marchers wearing signature-red shirts, some of which were adorned with Maduro's face. One sign read "Capriles: fascist assassin."

"Today we march as always through the streets with the workers, remembering The Giant and protesting violent fascism," wrote Maduro via his Twitter account, in reference to Chavez.

He retweeted messages from the late president's account from last year's May Day march.

In allied Cuba, which benefited from years of largesse during Chavez's 14-year rule, marchers filed through Havana's Revolution Square waving pictures of Chavez with the words "Our Best Friend" beneath his smiling face.

The opposition dismisses Maduro as an illegitimate leader who usurped power through voting-day irregularities.

Capriles said the opposition would challenge the elections on Thursday before the Supreme Court.

"We cannot fall into the traps of this illegitimate government, which is going to fall at any moment," he said during the opposition march.

Critics say state institutions including the Supreme Court and the elections council are controlled by the Socialist Party. Few believe either will alter the results of the vote.

The opposition insisted that the election authority do a complete audit of the vote. But Capriles said the audit the elections council planned to do was not thorough enough to uncover the irregularities, and refused to participate.

Leaders of Congress, which is controlled by the ruling Socialist Party, have refused to give opposition deputies the floor unless they recognize Maduro.

CONGRESS FRACAS

During Tuesday's session, legislators allied with Capriles raised a banner that read "Coup in the Parliament" to protest the measure they describe as censorship.

Video footage shows Socialist Party legislators scrambling to pull the banner down and one man repeatedly punching an opposition deputy in the face, leaving him bloodied and bruised.

Another deputy said she was thrown to the floor and kicked while Congress chief Diosdado Cabello, a close Chavez ally, stood watching with a smile on his face.

Cabello denied that in an interview with state television on Wednesday. He said he did not intervene because the opposition would have made it appear as though he were involved.

"Tempers are hot, but that's because these gentlemen of the opposition have not recognized state institutions and generated violence on April 14 and 15," he said.

The U.S. State Department, which has been for years at odds with Venezuela's government and has balked at recognizing Maduro, said such incidents have "no place in a representative democracy"

"We are deeply concerned by the violence that occurred (and) express our solidarity with those injured," said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell.

The legislature has opened a special commission to investigate the violence that resulted from opposition demonstrations to demand a full recount. The prisons minister has said she has prepared a cell for Capriles.

In recent days, the government has arrested a retired general turned opposition leader and an American film-maker on charges of stirring up the protests to destabilize the country.

(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea in Caracas, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman)

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