CARACAS, Venezuela - Thousands of chanting supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rallied outside his presidential palace Thursday in an exuberant alternative inauguration for a leader too ill to return home for the real thing.
Backers wearing T-shirts with the slogan "I am Chavez" waved flags while upbeat music from Chavez's last presidential campaign blared from speakers, proclaiming: "Chavez, heart of the people!"
The government organized the unusual show of support for the cancer-stricken leader on the streets outside Miraflores Palace on what was supposed to be his inauguration day. A swearing-in ceremony has been indefinitely postponed, despite opposition complaints.
"We came to show support, so he knows his nation is with him," said Anny Marquez, a secretary and voluntary member of a civilian militia that Chavez has built in recent years. "We're with him in the good times as well as the bad."
The government invited leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean to add political weight to the inauguration without an inauguree, while the domestic opposition demanded details about Chavez's state and called the delay of the formal swearing-in a violation of the constitution.
Presidents attending from allied countries included President Jose Mujica of Uruguay, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, whom Chavez designated his chosen successor last month, hosted a televised meeting with visiting leaders to discuss the Chavez-launched Petrocaribe program, through which the OPEC nation provides fuel under preferential terms to allies. Maduro said heads of state, foreign ministers and other officials from 19 countries had come to Caracas.
Maduro said the leaders would go to the presidential palace in the afternoon for the "main event." He said earlier that even though it wasn't an official swearing-in, Thursday's event still marks the start of a new term for the president following his re-election in October.
"A historic period of this second decade of the 21st century is starting, with our commander leading," Maduro said.
But glaring above all in the at times surreal event was Chavez's absence from the balcony of the presidential palace where he has so often spoken for hours to similar crowds, chiding his opponents and called for a socialist revolution.
As in past rallies before the president himself, Chavez's face beamed from shirts, signs, banners and murals. Nearly everyone wore the colour of his Bolivarian Revolution movement as the swelling crowd grew into a sea of red.
Hundreds of National Guard troops and police stood guard on street corners while hip-hop artists performed on stages set up along the avenue leading toward the presidential palace. Many in the crowd held up posters reading: "Now with Chavez more than ever."
"We're all Chavez," said Rafael Colmenares, a street vendor selling caps and shirts with images of Chavez. "That's why we're here, to show the world that Venezuela loves Chavez."
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