(Adds Evo Morales, Chavez supporters gathering)
By Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta
CARACAS, March 5 Followers of the late
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez took to the streets on Wednesday
to mark the anniversary of his death, a sad but welcome
distraction for his successor, who has faced a month of violent
A year after Chavez succumbed to cancer, his self-proclaimed
"son", President Nicolas Maduro, faces the biggest challenge to
his rule from an explosion of anti-government demonstrations
that have led to clashes with security forces and 18 deaths.
Wednesday's military parade and other events to honor 'El
Comandante' were a chance for Maduro, 51, to reclaim the streets
and show opponents that he too can mobilize.
"This anniversary is enormously sad. There's not a single
day I don't remember Hugo," Chavez's cousin, Guillermo Frias,
60, said from Los Rastrojos village in rural Barinas state,
where the pair used to play baseball in the street as kids.
"He changed Venezuela forever, and we cannot go back. Maduro
also is a poor man, like us. He's handling things fine. Perhaps
he just needs a stronger hand," he told Reuters.
Tens of thousands of red-clad 'Chavistas' were gathering for
rallies in Caracas and elsewhere in honor of the socialist whose
14-year rule won him the adoration of many of Venezuela's
poorest, while alienating the middle and upper classes.
Maduro will preside over a parade in the capital before
going to the hilltop military museum where Chavez led a 1992
coup attempt that launched his political career, and where his
remains have been laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus.
"Chavez passed into history as the man who revived Bolivar,"
said Maduro, who often hails Chavez as South America's second
"liberator" after independence hero Simon Bolivar.
UKRAINE-STYLE CHANGE UNLIKELY
Chavez's own humble roots, anti-U.S. rhetoric, network of
grassroots political organizations and lavish spending on slum
projects made him a hero for many.
Yet his often tough line against opponents, some of whom
ended up in exile or jail, his sweeping nationalizations, and
his rigid economic policies such as price and currency controls
angered many others.
One year after his death, though, debate in Venezuela is no
longer about Chavez, but his would-be heir Maduro.
The former bus driver and union activist lacks Chavez's
charisma and personal grip on the ruling Socialist Party, and
has been unable to fix Venezuela's many problems, ranging from
soaring prices, to deteriorating services, and runaway crime.
Yet 'Chavistas' largely remain loyal to their hero's dying
wish that they support Maduro. So far, the protests have not
spread far from a middle-class core, and the military seems
loyal, making a Ukraine-style change unlikely.
A long weekend national holiday for Carnival and now the
anniversary of Chavez's death have taken some of the wind out of
the protests, but a hard core of students and radical opposition
leaders are still on the streets.
Some opposition leaders called for a day without protests on
Wednesday to show respect for Chavez's memory.
But students said they would not stop, and firebrand
legislator Maria Corina Machado announced a march in the western
city of San Cristobal, which has seen the worst of the unrest.
"They're killing people and holding a national party, so why
should we respect the day of Chavez's death?" said Jose Garcia,
26, wearing a balaclava and clutching stones to throw at police
in Caracas' Plaza Altamira.
"CHAVEZ DIDN'T DIE"
The numbers of demonstrators seldom go beyond a few
thousand, a far cry from the vast street protests against Chavez
that led to a brief military coup against him in 2002.
State media have rolled out round-the-clock hagiographical
coverage of the late president. Some Chavez loyalists seem
barely able to use the word "death", preferring euphemisms such
as his "physical disappearance" or "sowing in the sky".
"Chavez didn't die, he multiplied!" read a scrolling
headline on state TV.
Government supporters interviewed by Reuters were disdainful
of the demonstrators, but were also frank in their criticism of
Maduro for failing to right the economy or forge his own path
out of his mentor's shadow.
"This year has been one to remember our commander, and then
rebuild our revolution. First we were in shock, but we had to
breathe deep and keep fighting," said Marisol Aponte, a diehard
'Chavista' and teacher from a poor zone of west Caracas.
"Maduro's had it tough. He has to find his own path, his own
ideas, his own speech. He's not Chavez. The commander is gone,
we can't mourn him permanently. There's so much work to do,
errors to correct."
She added that Maduro needs to purge his Cabinet and
modernize Chavez-era social programs.
Some of Chavez's highest-profile friends, including leftist
leaders from around Latin America, were in Caracas.
"We're here, not only to remember the death of our comrade
and brother Hugo Chavez, but also his struggle for Latin
American unity, democracy and peace," Bolivian President Evo
Morales said on arrival.
"We also want to proclaim our solidarity for the Venezuelan
people, the Bolivarian revolution. It's our duty to defend
elected presidents ... we do not accept coup attempts," he
added, standing next to Maduro at the presidential palace.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Daniel
Wallis and Sophie Hares)