BOGOTA -- Venezuela marked the 55th anniversary of its return to democracy Wednesday amid deep political divisions and accusations from both sides that their foes were bent on violence, and even assassination.
At a massive rally, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said there were clear indications that “infiltrated” groups were trying to kill him and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
On the other side of town, huddled in a gymnasium, a coalition of opposition parties accused the government of trying to incite violence on the streets and ratchet up fear to distract the nation from its pressing problems.
Standing in front of a massive banner of the president, Maduro told chanting supporters that the administration had uncovered plans to kill him and Cabello and then blame it on an internal power struggle.
“Don’t be surprised by the actions we take within the next hours or the next days,” he warned the opposition. “And those criminals who infiltrated our country shouldn’t come asking for forgiveness.”
During last year’s presidential campaign, Chávez had maintained foreign mercenaries were plotting against him, including a U.S. citizen —reportedly a former Marine — who was arrested in August. Nothing has come of that case.
Wednesday’s dueling events showed, once again, that the ruling PSUV has the ability to dominate the streets and hem in the opposition even without President Hugo Chávez, who has been in a Cuban hospital for more than a month recovering from cancer surgery.
The rallies marked the 1958 overthrow of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez who ruled the country for seven years. Earlier this month, the opposition had said it would mark the date by staging a march to protest what they see as the government’s trampling of the constitution. Days later, however, the government also called its supporters to take the streets, and the opposition scaled-back its plans to avoid violence.
On Wednesday, Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost against Chávez in the October presidential race, said the government was hoping to stir up trouble.
“The government wanted a confrontation today,” he said at the packed gymnasium where the opposition had gathered. “We are not going to fall into their trap. As long as they keep promoting violence, we’ll keep betting on the peace and tranquility of our nation.”
If Chávez were to step down or die, the constitution calls for new elections within 30 days. Many believe that Capriles, 40, would be the natural candidate to face Maduro or any other Chávez successor.
Political divisions run deep in Venezuela, but this has been a tense month in the oil-rich nation, as the opposition has insisted that the administration is violating the constitution by claiming that Chávez is still in charge even though he has not been seen or heard from since Dec. 10.
On Wednesday, the government said a reporter for state-run VTV television was hospitalized after being beaten at the opposition rally.
On Tuesday, opposition legislator Julio Borges said he had been assaulted on the floor of the National Assembly by PSUV congressman Claudio Farías. Farías maintains that Borges provoked him by insulting Chávez and shoving him.
The tension comes as the administration says Chávez is recovering from his fourth-round of surgery to treat an undisclosed form of cancer. In recent communiqués, the administration has said he’s alert, giving orders and cracking jokes.
Maduro told the Chavista crowds Wednesday that he and the president of the state-run PDVSA oil company Rafael Ramirez were on their way to Cuba to consult with the leader.
“What do you want us to take to Chávez?” Maduro asked the masses.
“Love!” they replied.