Chavez supporters come from afar, with love
They came by the tens of thousand Thursday to pay fervent tribute to their stricken leader, Hugo Chavez, many of them on buses, from oil states and seaside cities and the distant Andes.
With words of love for their longtime leader and contempt for his opponents, they turned the broad avenue that runs past the Miraflores presidential palace into a sea of red shirts and flags, the color of Chavez's leftist movement.
"I've come because you repay love with love," said 35-year-old Gladys Guerrero, who came from the eastern city of Maturin.
In her hand was a pocket-sized copy of the Venezuelan constitution, which is at the center of a raging debate here over whether Chavez should temporarily step down after a month-long absence in Cuba battling cancer.
Chavez, still in Havana recovering from surgery, was too sick to return to be sworn in to a new six-year term Thursday so the government indefinitely postponed his inauguration and replaced it with a giant rally of support.
Pedro Brito, a 60-year-old law professor, arrived after a long bus ride from the Caribbean port of Puerto La Cruz in eastern Venezuela, wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "I am Chavez."
"If Chavez had been here today to take the oath of office, I would have come too. Nothing changes with this, we have him in our hearts," he said, touching his chest.
From stages erected up and down the street, Chavista militants led chants and stoked up the crowd with cries of "Chavez, Chavez, Chavez!" and the anti-opposition slogan "They will not return."
"We are going to tell the 'majunches' that the people have come today to occupy the seat of the president," shouted one militant, using Venezuelan slang to refer to the upper class.
For 14 years, the larger-than-life Chavez is the only president Venezuelans has known, elected and re-elected three times as an anti-US populist on a mission to create a socialist society in an oil-rich country that is deeply divided by class.
Both loved and hated, the 58-year-old former paratrooper was easily re-elected on October 7 despite a battle of cancer that sapped his once brimming vitality.
"The people are with him and those of us who love him are in the vanguard, always ready to come out to support him," said 23-year-old Cleofelia Aceros, who came from the central state of Guarico.
"Since he couldn't come, we've come in his place to be sworn in, because we love him," she said.
Nina Ilarte, 65, said she made the 12-hour bus trip from the northeastern city of Sucre "to support our comandante."
"If God wills, he will soon be cured. I am suffering a lot but I am sure he will return soon to Venezuela. We need him."
Meanwhile, a woman screamed from another stage: "So they can hear it as far away as Cuba: 'We are all of us Chavez.'" In the crowd, the chant went up, "Today, Tomorrow, Always!"