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President Hugo Chavez is governing Venezuela today virtually without any effective, united opposition, as shown by the third anniversary of the events of April 11-14, 2002, when massive opposition protests preceded a short-lived civil-military coup d’etat, and huge groups of Chavez supporters and loyal troops reinstated the President.

Hundreds of thousands of anti-Chavez protesters marched on the government palace on April 11, 2002, prior to the President’s brief overthrow, and similar shows of the strength of the opposition movement continued to occur up until the August 2004 recall referendum in which the opposition unsuccessfully attempted to remove the President.

But only a few hundred demonstrators came out for Monday’s anniversary march in a middle-class district of Caracas. "People are discouraged, because the (opposition) leaders have gone from one failure to another. I used to march, but I don’t anymore, and I won’t until new leaders crop up,” Daisy Torcatt, an employee in a cafeteria along the route taken by the protesters, commented to IPS.

By contrast, a pro-government rally in the center of the capital drew tens of thousands of Chavez supporters Wednesday, including people from poor Caracas neighbourhoods as well as civil servants from the central administration and local governments of nearby cities and regions.

"We came here three years ago to demand that they give us back ’el comandante’ (Chavez). That is what we are celebrating, and we have learned a lot. We will not be taken by surprise again by another coup,” said Luis Martinez, a motorcycle taxi driver standing in a group of 100 other motorcyclists, 200 meters from the government palace.

Chavez, a former paratroop lieutenant-colonel, led a failed armed uprising in 1992 against then President Carlos Andres Perez (1974-1979 and 1989-1993), who was later removed from office and convicted on corruption charges. In 1998, Chavez was elected President, and under a new constitution that was approved by voters in a 1999 referendum, he won a six-year term in 2000.

After the 2002 coup staged by dissident high-ranking officers in alliance with business and other opposition sectors, tens of thousands of Chavez followers along with troops that supported the constitutional order brought the President back to Caracas from where he was being held under arrest.

The intense political polarisation continued for two years after the ouster, with the opposition holding huge protest rallies as well as a December 2002-January 2003 general strike, all of which failed in the aim to topple Chavez. But the opposition began to run out of steam after 59% of voters backed Chavez in the 2004 Presidential recall referendum.

Another blow to the anti-Chavez movement occurred when the president’s allies won 22 of the 24 regional governments and 75% of the 335 city governments in the October 2004 elections.

Political analysts also predict victories for the governing party and allied forces in the elections for city councillors in August, the December legislative elections, and the 2006 Presidential poll.

The enormous street demonstrations have disappeared for now, and Chavez is forging ahead with his self-styled ”social revolution,” including agrarian reform, a spate of social programmes that have benefited the poor majority, and the creation of citizen reserves aimed at deterring aggression against Venezuela.

On Wednesday, 20,000 reservists wearing olive-green fatigues paraded before the President at a military academy in Caracas, as part of the formal creation of the popular defence units as a fifth branch of the armed forces, along with the army, the navy, the air force and the national guard. The reserves will answer directly to the Head of State.

The government’s foreign policy, meanwhile, has focused on the ongoing war of words with Washington, oil industry cooperation with Venezuela’s neighbours in South America and the Caribbean, and the strengthening of political and trade alliances with countries like China, India, Iran, Russia and Spain.

A survey of 1,500 people in seven Venezuelan cities, by the polling firm Hinterlaces, found that 53% of respondents supported Chavez and 38% were opposed to him. Meanwhile, only 10% of those surveyed said they backed the opposition movement ... which was rejected by 83%. "There is a new political panorama in the country,”

Hinterlaces director Oscar Schemel remarked to IPS. "The people see the opposition as a class of politicians stuck in the past, who want to maintain their privileges and who are neither working for the interests of the people nor coming up with a viable alternative to Chavez’ programme.” In focus groups with respondents, Schemel said he had found that "more than 60% of those polled would like to be able to compare Chavez to some alternative.”

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel called for this year’s anniversary of the coup to serve as an opportunity for the opposition to "renew itself, issue a mea culpa on the maneuvers it has used in its attempts to get rid of Chavez, and rebuild its forces in benefit of democracy. Governing without opposition is very boring.”

The opposition parties linked by the Democratic Coordinator coalition that sought to topple Chavez have been severely weakened since the 2004 Presidential recall referendum and the October 2004 regional elections, and have failed to reach agreement on a united platform for taking part in the August 7 local elections.

IPS