Thousands of people clad in red rallied in Caracas on Wednesday, many holding signs of ailing President Hugo Chavez as they marked the anniversary of a deadly popular revolt in 1989.
The event commemorating a massacre that left hundreds dead 24 years ago was the first rally to be held in the capital since Chavez returned from two months of cancer treatment in Cuba nine days ago.
"We, the children of our commander Hugo Chavez, feel proud and happy because we can say that the sacrifice of our people was worth it," Vice President Nicolas Maduro told the crowd assembled at Plaza Caracas square.
"Have no doubt that we will defend the beautiful work of commander Hugo Chavez Frias," he said, with several military chiefs standing behind him, in a show of unity after the government denied rumors of a rift with the army last weekend.
Chavez has remained out of sight since checking into a military hospital in downtown Caracas on February, an absence that has fueled speculation about his well-being and whereabouts.
But many at the rally, holding signs reading "I am Chavez" as music celebrating the leftists leader played on speakers, voiced optimism that their "comandante" will return.
"We are certain that he will be back by the people's side," said Leobaldo Nieves, 52, a municipal councilman in the state of Guarico 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, including the lack of images since his return. The opposition has asked why images were not shown of a five-hour meeting Chavez had with aides last Friday.
"They want videos, but if you show videos, they'll come back the next days 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."
Chavez has said that the February 27, 1989, revolt, known as the "Caracazo," marked the beginning of his socialist revolution.
The city erupted in protests and riots after the government of president Carlos Andres Perez rose fuel and public transport prices, prompting a crackdown that officially left 276 dead. Rights groups say some 1,000 people died.