Venezuela's opposition ramps up the pressure

President Hugo Chavez's lengthy absence from the public spotlight continues to be exploited by right-wing opponents in Venezuela and abroad to create a political crisis.

A few dozen anti-Chavez students decked out in chains gathered outside a legal tribunal building in the opulent Chacao area of the capital Caracas on Tuesday and tried to blockade the street.

They and local opposition media have complained of "repression" in response to police efforts to clear the thoroughfare.

The students claimed to have organised their stunt to force the government to provide more information on the president's recovery from surgery for cancer, following which he has undergone both radiation and chemotherapy.

Similar numbers demonstrated outside the Cuban embassy before the president's return demanding that he come home and accusing Cuba of unspecified interference in Venezuelan affairs.

Incredibly, the students proclaimed their mini-demo a success after Chavez flew in as though at their command.

Government ministers have explained that Chavez remains in the Caracas military hospital to which he was brought from the airport after flying in from Havana, where he had spent two months undergoing medical treatment.

His respiratory difficulties mean that he is currently breathing through a tracheal cannula and therefore cannot broadcast to the people, although Vice-President Nicolas Maduro says that he participated in a Cabinet meeting around his bed last Friday, contributing his thoughts in written notes.

Maduro confirmed on Thursday that the president "is battling there for his health, for his life, and we're accompanying him."

Not good enough, say the students identified as supporters of the far-right and often violent Movement 13 based in the University of The Andes and of the Venezuela United Active Youth "clean hands" organisation.

They will persist with their protests until the truth is told about Chavez's health, they say.

The gilded youth of Venezuela's bourgeoisie are not alone in their efforts to destabilise the situation.

Their elders, headed by twice-unsuccessful presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, held a protest in Caracas last weekend demanding more information and denouncing government devaluation of the country's currency, the bolivar.

"If up to now it has seemed like we have been passive, that is over," Capriles blustered, pledging further activity.

Opposition politicians spoke from a stage dominated by a huge backdrop depicting empty supermarket shelves and trolleys full of packets resembling Venezuela's most famous brand of corn flour, Polar's Harina Pan, with the word "Pan" amended to "Paq," which is an abbreviation for "paquetazo," as IMF structural adjustment programmes (SAP) are often called.

The desired effect was that citizens should view devaluation as the equivalent of an SAP or a "red" adjustment package, as they termed it.

"The government talks about change and about revolution, but what they did here was take money away from the poor," said legislator Ismael Garcia of the For Social Democracy opposition party.

However, the previous week's publication by WikiLeaks of over 40,000 secret documents outlining US efforts, through intelligence company Stratfor, to subvert Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution threw light on murky goings-on.

WikiLeaks commented that the emails "show Stratfor's web of informers, pay-off structure, payment laundering techniques and psychological methods."

Many meetings with opposition politicians are recorded and one document is headed "a how-to guide for revolution."

However, the overall impression is of a wish list, advising the right wing to exploit government problems and comforting them that "the US networks are definitely involved," while lamenting that popular and military support for the revolution is firm.

That backing was confirmed on Wednesday when tens of thousands of red-shirted Chavistas, in a number of towns and cities, commemorated the 24th anniversary of the Caracazo mass civilian slaughter perpetrated in the streets of the capital at the behest of president Carlos Andres Perez.

Perez had been re-elected the previous year after running a campaign ostensibly opposed to demands from the IMF to impose neoliberal market-based "reforms."

He railed against the IMF as "a neutron bomb that killed people, but left buildings standing," adding that World Bank economists were "genocide workers in the pay of economic totalitarianism."

But, once elected, he swallowed the IMF line, privatising state industry, reducing taxation on the rich, slashing customs duties and removing petrol price subsidies which sent the cost of public transport soaring.

Thousands of poor people were shot dead in 1989 after they rioted, looting shops in response to their impoverishment.

Three years later, Chavez led an unsuccessful coup against Perez, which cemented the conviction among Venezuela's dispossessed that he was their man.

Maduro told the Caracazo commemoration rally last weekend that the imprint of February 27 1989 was still fresh, "it was a collective awakening."

The vice-president said that victims' families are still being identified to offer them financial compensation, declaring: "It's the same right wing now. It doesn't matter how they want to dress themselves up."

He dismissed opposition efforts to spread rumours of splits between United Socialist Party leaders or between political activists and the military.

"We call on our people and our armed forces to raise the banner of unity, to guarantee political stability and to guarantee the defeat of this parasitic bourgeoisie," Maduro concluded.