* Socialist president out of sight during cancer treatment
* Foes say VP Maduro and others lying about his state
By Girish Gupta
CARACAS, March 3 Hundreds of pro-opposition
students and other critics of Hugo Chavez's government marched
in Caracas on Sunday to demand proof that the cancer-stricken
Venezuelan leader is still alive and governing.
The crowd, including various leaders at the more militant
end of the Democratic Unity opposition coalition, sang protest
songs and waved banners as they rallied in a central
neighborhood on a sweltering morning.
"Give us the truth!" and "Stop lying!" read banners.
Underlining the deep political polarization of the South
American nation of 29 million people during Chavez's 14-year
rule, pro-government students were also planning a march in
support of the president and his ministers.
With Chavez unseen, apart from one set of photos, since a
Dec. 11 cancer operation in December, Venezuelans are on edge
waiting for developments amid a sea of rumors.
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, they say.
CHAVEZ 'CANNOT GOVERN'
Opponents, though, accuse Vice President Nicolas Maduro and
others 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.
"They are violating the constitution. Venezuela has no
authorities right now. President Chavez is sick, he hasn't said
a word in two months. He cannot govern," said protester Maria
Montero, a 56-year-old teacher.
"We want impartial spokesmen to give us information about
Chavez, real doctors, not politicians," added Maria Mendoza, 54,
who works for state oil company PDVSA.
Should Chavez die or step down, a vote would be held within
30 days, probably pitting Maduro against opposition leader and
state governor Henrique Capriles for leadership of a nation that
holds the world's biggest oil reserves.
The stakes are also high for the region. Chavez has been the
most strident Latin American critic of the United States and
financed hefty aid programs for leftist governments from Cuba to
Capriles, who lost to Chavez in last year's presidential
election, was on a private visit to the United States over the
weekend, prompting accusations from the government that he was
plotting and taking money from "fascist" factions there.
Calling him the "decadent prince of the parasitical
bourgeoisie," Maduro said late on Saturday that Capriles had met
with conservative U.S. political figures Otto Reich and Roger
Noriega, and was also planning to meet a U.S. State Department
"We know very well about the conspiracies of these people.
Let nobody be mistaken about Venezuela. Be careful, those who go
abroad to conspire against our people," he said in one of a
series of live addresses to the nation.
The opposition leader, a centrist politician who admires
Brazil's model, retorted with a Tweet showing a photo of him
with two young boys he said were his nephews.
"Here I am with two big conspirators," Capriles joked.
Sunday's demonstration was called to support several dozen
students who have chained themselves up in a Caracas street for
nearly a week to protest against the secrecy over Chavez.
The government has warned protesters against trying to
approach the hospital where Chavez is being treated on a closely
guarded ninth floor.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Will Dunham)