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Venezuelans remember Chavez with pomp and protests

Followers of Venezuela’s late socialist leader Hugo Chavez flooded the streets on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of his death, a sad but welcome distraction for his successor who has faced a month of violent protests, Reuters reports.

A year after Chavez succumbed to cancer, his self-proclaimed ‘son,’ President Nicolas Maduro, faces the biggest challenge to his rule from a month-long explosion of anti-government demonstrations that have led to 18 deaths.

Wednesday’s military parade and other events to honor ‘El Comandante’ were a chance for Maduro, 51, to reclaim the streets and show opponents that he too can mobilize his supporters.

“This anniversary is enormously sad. There’s not a single day I don’t remember Hugo,” Chavez’s cousin, Guillermo Frias, 60, said from Los Rastrojos village in rural Barinas state, where the pair used to play baseball as kids.

“He changed Venezuela forever, and we cannot go back. Maduro also is a poor man, like us. He’s handling things fine. Perhaps he just needs a stronger hand,” he told Reuters.

Tens of thousands of red-clad ‘Chavistas’ gathered for rallies in Caracas and elsewhere in honor of Chavez whose 14-year rule won him the adoration of many of Venezuela’s poorest, while alienating the middle and upper classes.

Students, though, set up barricades in various streets of Caracas, and other cities nationwide, from before dawn. One 26-year-old man died in western Tachira state when he crashed his car swerving to avoid a roadblock set up by protesters.

Maduro was presiding over a parade in the capital before going to the hilltop military museum where Chavez led a 1992 coup attempt that launched his political career, and where his remains have been laid to rest in a marble sarcophagus.

“Chavez passed into history as the man who revived Bolivar,” said Maduro, who often hails Chavez as South America’s second “liberator” after independence hero Simon Bolivar.

During the lavish ceremony in Caracas, Maduro welcomed leftists including Cuba’s President Raul Castro.

Chavez’s own humble roots, anti-U.S. rhetoric, network of grassroots political organizations and lavish spending on slum projects made him a hero for many.

Yet his tough line against opponents, sweeping nationalizations, and rigid economic policies such as price and currency controls angered many others.

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