CARACAS (Reuters) - Followers of Venezuela's late socialist leader Hugo Chavez flooded the streets on Wednesday for the anniversary of his death, an emotional but welcome distraction for his successor from violent protests that have been raging for a month.
A year after Chavez succumbed to cancer, his self-proclaimed 'son,' President Nicolas Maduro, faces the biggest challenge to his rule from an explosion of anti-government demonstrations that have led to 18 deaths since February.
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.
Hundreds of protesting students, though, set up barricades in various streets of Caracas and other cities nationwide from before dawn. Police fired teargas at stone-throwing demonstrators in one upscale district of the capital.
One 26-year-old man died in western Tachira state when he crashed his car swerving at a roadblock set up by protesters.
Maduro presided 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.
"Hugo Chavez passed into history as the redeemer of the poor," Maduro said, comparing his mentor to both Jesus and South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
UKRAINE-STYLE CHANGE UNLIKELY
The president hosted prominent leftist allies including Cuba's President Raul Castro during the lavish ceremonies.
Chavez's 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.
One year after his death, though, debate in Venezuela is no longer about Chavez, but his would-be heir.
Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, lacks Chavez's charisma and grip on the ruling Socialist Party, and has been unable to fix Venezuela's many problems, ranging from soaring prices to deteriorating services and runaway crime.
Yet 'Chavistas' largely remain loyal to their hero's dying wish that they support Maduro. So far, the protests have not spread far from a middle-class core and the military seems loyal, making a Ukraine-style change of government unlikely.
Oil shipments from South America's biggest exporter have not been affected, though the unrest has hit small businesses.
A long six-day national holiday for Carnival and now the anniversary of Chavez's death have taken some wind out of the protests but a hard core of students and radical opposition leaders are still on the streets and there is violence daily.
Some opposition leaders called for a day without protests on Wednesday to show respect for Chavez's memory. But students refused to stop and firebrand legislator Maria Corina Machado led a march in the western city of San Cristobal where protests began and which has seen the worst of the unrest.
Protesters in San Cristobal blocked a border crossing to Colombia.
"Various presidents are here and we want to show them that Venezuela is sick," said Silvana Lezama, a 20-year-old student, standing in front of a Venezuelan flag as she stood guard at a barricade in the upscale El Cafetal district of Caracas.
"We're not insulting Chavez, but when he died last year there was a week of mourning. Now we have 18 people dead from protests and they declared five days of Carnival holiday."
'CHAVEZ DIDN'T DIE'
The numbers of demonstrators seldom go beyond a few thousand, however. That is a far cry from the vast street protests against Chavez that led to a brief military coup against him in 2002.
State media have rolled out round-the-clock hagiographical coverage of the late president. Some Chavez loyalists seem barely able to use the word "death," preferring euphemisms such as his "physical disappearance" or "sowing in the sky".
"Chavez didn't die, he multiplied!" said state TV.
Government supporters interviewed by Reuters were disdainful of the demonstrators but also frank in criticism of Maduro for failing to right the economy or forge his own path.
"Maduro's had it tough. He has to find his own path, his own ideas, his own speech. He's not Chavez. The commander is gone, we can't mourn him permanently. There's so much work to do, errors to correct," said Marisol Aponte, a diehard 'Chavista' and community activist from a poor zone of west Caracas.
She urged Maduro to purge his cabinet and modernize Chavez-era social programs.
Some of Chavez's highest-profile friends, including leftist leaders from around Latin America, were in Caracas.
"It's our duty to defend elected presidents ... We do not accept coup attempts," Bolivia's President Evo Morales said, standing next to Maduro at the presidential palace.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Esteban Israel in Caracas; Javier Farias in San Cristobal; Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Paul Simao and James Dalgleish)
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