CARACAS – Thousands of Venezuelans took to Caracas' streets Saturday, some supporting President Hugo Chavez as a revolutionary hero as others railed against his "dictatorship," signaling a heated political climate ahead of this year's legislative elections.
Marking the anniversary of the downfall of General Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, demonstrators of all stripes turned out in force in anticipation of September legislative polls.
Chavez addressed thousands of followers in western Caracas, demanding "absolute loyalty" and telling them he embodied the heart and soul of the Venezuelan people.
"I demand absolute loyalty to my leadership... anything else is betrayal," said the firebrand, leftist president.
"I am not an individual, I am the people," Chavez said. "It's my duty to demand respect for the people. If you cherish the fatherland, join Chavez," he urged, asking for votes to renew the ruling party's control of both National Assembly houses in the next election.
"Once more we have to win the majority of the National Assembly... and continue building our new socialist state," Chavez added.
Opposition leaders rallied to defeat Chavez in the polls.
"2010 is the year of change for all of Venezuela... when hatred will be overcome by unity," pledged opposition leader Julio Borges before a crowd of supporters.
Politicians critical of Chavez slammed the country's high crime rates and electricity rationing mandated by the government in response to the energy crisis.
Another leader, Andres Velasquez, told the crowd the opposition movement was "building unity to bring about the end of the dictatorial regime."
Some 5,600 police guarded conflicting demonstrations, as protesters converged in the early hours of Saturday and marched to the city center.
Thousands of government supporters poured into western Caracas to hear Chavez speak.
"I came from far away to be here, to defend the revolution and the movement led by commander Hugo Chavez," said one supporter, citing the revolutionary slogan: "Fatherland, socialism or death."
Another supporter, who also asked not to be named, said they had come to join the demonstration "to defend our country and say no to US imperialism," adding Chavez's defenders would support him "even with (their) lives."
Venezuela will host crucial polls in September in which Chavez hopes to secure at least two thirds of seats to maintain his current legislative majority.
According to opinion polls, Chavez' popularity, which approached 60 percent approval at the beginning of 2009, stood now at less than 50 percent.
Chavez, an elected former paratrooper and a vocal opponent of US influence in the region, has been in power since 1999.