Venezuela's vice president said Wednesday that the government has uncovered a plot to attack him or another senior leader of President Hugo Chavez's party.
The purported plot involved "groups that have infiltrated the country," Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a speech to government supporters. He added that the authorities believe the unidentified groups intended to attack him or National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, and then "try to blame one or the other."
After announcing the alleged plot, Maduro traveled to Cuba to see the ailing Chavez, who underwent cancer surgery more than six weeks ago. Cuban state television showed Maduro arriving in Havana on Wednesday night and being greeted by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
In a speech to supporters in Caracas on Wednesday afternoon, Maduro didn't provide any evidence of the plot or say what sort of attacks the authorities believed to have been planned. The vice president also didn't mention any arrests, but said: "Don't be surprised by the actions that will be taken in the coming days."
A large contingent of police and troops with rifles stood guard while Maduro spoke at an outdoor rally.
The vice president and Cabello have often appeared together while Chavez has remained out of sight in Cuba following the operation. Speculation about potential divisions between the two men has arisen, but they have repeatedly insisted they are working together and united.
Maduro said Chavez has gone through a difficult recovery process after the Dec. 11 operation, and that now "he's on the path to a new phase."
Chavez, who was re-elected to another six-year term in October, has not appeared or spoken publicly since he left for Havana on Dec. 10. Government officials have said the 58-year-old president is improving after suffering complications including a severe respiratory infection, but they have not provided specific details about his health.
Even with Chavez absent, his supporters took to Caracas' streets by the thousands Wednesday to commemorate the anniversary of the country's democracy.
The president's supporters, many of whom wore T-shirts emblazoned with an image of the president's eyes, marched through the city in separate groups. They then gathered in the working-class neighborhood of 23 de Enero, which was built by Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's last dictator, and later named for the Jan. 23 date of his downfall.
"Our president has brought true democracy to our country. Nobody should believe opposition leaders who say that Chavez is a threat to democracy," said Angel Colmenares, a burly 44-year-old brick mason who waved Venezuela's red, yellow and blue flag as he marched with others through downtown Caracas.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Henrique Capriles joined thousands of government opponents at a separate gathering in a basketball arena in eastern Caracas where he dismissed the alleged plot by referring to the country's high murder rate, saying there are "attacks every day against more than 50 Venezuelans."
Chavez was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup and returned to power within two days. In the years since, Chavez has periodically announced the discovery of plots against him and his government. However, arrests have been few and such claims have largely been unsubstantiated.
The opposition earlier this month had announced plans for a protest on Wednesday but scaled back their event after the government announced its supporters would fill downtown Caracas with their demonstration.
"They wanted a confrontation between Venezuelans," Capriles told reporters, referring to the government.
Capriles also accused the government of providing incomplete and contradictory information about Chavez by "saying the president is walking and telling jokes, but he doesn't communicate with the country."
Since Chavez took office in 1999, Jan. 23 has become a date that underscores Venezuela's political divisions, with opponents often using it to protest against Chavez's government.
"What's evident today is the deep fracture, the immense division, the strong polarization that characterizes Venezuelan society," said Tulio Hernandez, a sociologist and newspaper columnist.
"The group in power is permanently trying to demonstrate the other group, the dissident one, does not form part of the same political community," Hernandez said during a telephone interview, adding that government officials are attempting to portray opposition supporters are "enemies, not adversaries."
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda in Caracas and Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.
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