Venezuelan govt denies rift with army at rally

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 deadly popular 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 to be held 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 cancer surgery in 18 months.

"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.

The dearth of information about Chavez's condition has fueled rumors on the streets of Caracas and on Twitter, but the government has insisted 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 is unable to return to power 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 at the rally, who smiled and waved at the crowd. She and her younger sister were featured in pictures of a smiling but bed-ridden Chavez that were shown 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 in the meantime.

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.

The opposition has asked why no images of the meeting were ever shown.

Chavez was once a fixture on state media who would have never missed an event like Wednesday's rally, which marked a February 27, 1989 revolt known as the "Caracazo," that the president 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 some 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 elected.

At the rally, many 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 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.

"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."

Across town, a group of 40 university students spent the night chained to each other in the middle of a street, vowing to stay there until the "de facto" government "tells the truth" about Chavez's condition.

"They must say whether Chavez is alive or not," said Villca Fernandez, 30, a political science student at Los Andes University. "We are convinced that Maduro is lying."