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With President Hugo Chavez still out of sight, the Venezuelan government denied any rift with the army Wednesday as it led a rally in Caracas to mark the anniversary of a popular but deadly revolt.
Thousands of people clad in red rallied in the capital, many wearing shirts bearing the image of the leftist leader, and others holding signs reading "I am Chavez" as they marked the massacre of hundreds of people in 1989.
It was the first rally in Caracas since Chavez, 58, checked into a military hospital in the capital nine days ago after spending two months in Cuba, where he underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery in 18 months.
"Have no doubt that we will defend the beautiful work of commander Hugo Chavez Frias," Vice President Nicolas Maduro told the crowd at Plaza Caracas square, with several military chiefs standing behind him.
The dearth of information about Chavez's condition has fueled rumors on the streets of Caracas and on Twitter, but officials insist that the firebrand leader remains in charge and that his aides are united.
The rumors last Friday ranged from unusual activity in the military's Tiuna Fort in the capital to discontent within the army over the handling of the president's health.
"Today the people and the armed forces are more united than ever, like a fist of the fatherland," said Maduro, who was named by Chavez as his political heir in case he must quit and elections are held.
He warned the opposition not to "come with little stories that we are fighting."
Maduro also introduced the oldest daughter of Chavez, who smiled and waved at the crowd. She and her younger sister were featured in pictures of a smiling but bed-ridden Chavez released on February 15, the only images of him in two months.
Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president and former army captain who is seen as close to the military, denied any feud between him and Maduro.
"We are brothers of the fatherland, we are sons of Chavez," he told the rally.
If Chavez becomes incapacitated, Venezuela would have to hold elections within 30 days and the assembly president would serve as interim leader.
But many at the rally voiced optimism that their "comandante" would return, as music celebrating the former army paratrooper blared on speakers.
"We are certain that he will be back by the people's side," said Leobaldo Nieves, 52, a town councilman in Guarico state whose five-year-old son was dressed like Chavez in military fatigues and a red beret.
Many agreed with the government secrecy surrounding Chavez's health.
"They want videos, but if you show videos, they'll come back the next day and ask to see him in person," said Maria Luisa Sanchez, 52, a school teacher wearing a red shirt reading "Chavez, heart of my people."
Last Thursday, the government said Chavez was still suffering from a respiratory infection and that the tendency was not favorable.
The next day, Maduro said Chavez held a five-hour meeting with aides, communicating by writing, but the opposition has asked why no images of the meeting were ever shown.
With Chavez absent, the opposition is looking for a unity candidate for a possible snap election.
A group of 40 university students spent the night chained to each other in the middle of a Caracas street, vowing to stay there until the "de facto" government "tells the truth" about Chavez.
"We are convinced that Maduro is lying," said Villca Fernandez, 30, a political science student at Los Andes University.
Chavez is usually a fixture on state media who would never miss an event such as Wednesday's rally, which marked a February 27, 1989 revolt known as the "Caracazo," that he considers the beginning of his socialist revolution.
The city erupted in protests and riots after the government of president Carlos Andres Perez hiked fuel and public transport prices, prompting a crackdown that officially left 276 dead. Rights groups say 1,000 people died.
Three years later, Chavez led a failed coup against Andres Perez.
The government launched Wednesday a commission to investigate the crimes of past administrations from 1958 until 1998, when Chavez was first elected.
"Today February 27 is a day to remember the pain and loss of human lives, not to celebrate," opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, wrote on Twitter.