CARACAS (Reuters) - Supporters and opponents of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez traded taunts and held dueling rallies on Wednesday at the start of a new parliament shorn of power by the socialist leader’s assumption of rule by decree.
Although the new National Assembly has greater numbers of opposition lawmakers — who had hoped to curb the former soldier’s self-styled “revolution” — the outgoing parliament hobbled it by awarding Chavez decree powers for 18 months.
Opposition supporters gathered noisily in downtown Caracas before the new lawmakers took their seats. They accuse the president of staging a “coup” against the Assembly and say he is turning the South American OPEC member into a dictatorship.
“Our tasks in the National Assembly are now very clear: to stop the imposition of communism in Venezuela, this communism that creates death, sadness and darkness,” said one opposition leader and new Caracas legislator, Maria Corina Machado.
Several thousand opposition supporters gathered to cheer their lawmakers off to the assembly, some shouting “Down with the revolution! Down with corruption!” while others waved banners reading “We are back!” and “We are the majority!”
On a corner opposite, women in red pro-government T-shirts sang back: “Ooh! Ah! Chavez no se va! (Chavez will not go!)”
Police, some in riot gear and carrying shields, blocked streets in the area and kept watch from a helicopter.
But apart from isolated scuffles there was none of the trouble that has marred past rallies in Venezuela.
Chavez, 56, says he needs decree powers to speed through urgent reconstruction after December floods smashed infrastructure and left 140,000 homeless.
He insists he is ruling in the name of a poor majority downtrodden for decades until he took office in 1999.
All sides are eyeing the next presidential election in December 2012, when Chavez will seek re-election and the opposition hopes to find a unity candidate who can unseat him.
The newly united opposition coalition won about half the popular vote at a September legislative election, giving it 40 percent of seats in parliament and a symbolic boost in its long and largely fruitless political battle against Chavez.
In a charged first session in the Assembly, lawmakers from both sides chanted slogans and mocked each other.
Opposition representatives waved signs saying “52 percent” in a reference to their total vote in September and shouted “Freedom” for two absent colleagues under arrest on murder and corruption charges that they say are politically motivated.
Government legislators shouted back: “Imperial lackeys!” and “You will not return (to power)!”
A government rally on the other side of parliament that also drew thousands went peacefully, to the relief of Caracas residents who largely stayed off the streets fearing violence.
Chavez joined that gathering brandishing a sword used by his idol and 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
He called for unity and applauded the day’s events but also slammed opposition lawmakers as “counter-revolutionaries.”
“They will never return to power,” he told a cheering crowd, before urging them to focus on the 2012 vote.
“You will say if you want to carry on with Chavez or you want the right-wing back. Those who want to be a Yankee colony, go with them; those who want the fatherland, come with me.”
Over the year-end holiday period, Chavez moved to sideline the opposition’s election gains by pushing a host of laws through the outgoing parliament to entrench socialism and boost state control in areas ranging from the Internet to banking.
A devaluation of the currency last week stirred passions even more, with critics saying it proved that the president had mismanaged the economy and oil revenues.
The opposition has returned to parliament for the first time in five years following a boycott of the 2005 legislative election, a move it now regrets.
The Democratic Unity coalition has 65 seats in the 165-member Assembly, compared to 98 for Chavez’s ruling Socialist Party. A smaller party, which recently broke with Chavez, has two seats.
“Bit by bit, we’re getting them out of power!” said pro-opposition pensioner Oswaldo Sanchez, 62.
Additional reporting by Patricia Rondon, Deisy Buitrago and Mario Naranjo; Editing by Eric Walsh