CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A year after President Hugo Chavez's death, Venezuela is mired in economic crisis and daily anti-government protests, and for many people Wednesday's pomp-soaked anniversary of his passing was a time for genuine sadness and nostalgia.
Even Venezuelans in the opposition said the Chavez days were preferable to the food scarcity, inflation and crime gripping the country now, and the deep feelings held by Chavistas for the late leader were evident.
Still, the big crowd gathered at the capital's parade grounds for a celebration of Chavez was smaller than a year ago for the observance after he died of cancer on March 5, 2013.
"This isn't like an anniversary; it's like we're mourning," said Gledis Hernandez, 43, who took her daughter and niece to the memorial parade in Caracas. She said Chavez gave her an apartment when her home was washed away in floods, but "right now we're living in a sad situation."
Outside the parade grounds, vendors hawked Chavez T-shirts, pins and hats. Visitors were given a newspaper upon entering the area with the headline "Chavez lives!" on the front and a cardboard cutout of Chavez riding a bike tucked within. Inside, tanks and soldiers paraded before a waving President Nicolas Maduro and military jets screamed overhead.
The military parade, attended by Chavez friends Bolivian President Evo Morales, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Cuban President Raul Castro among others, kicked off a 10-day commemoration. Afterward, they headed to a ceremony at Chavez's hilltop mausoleum to be followed by the television premier of an Oliver Stone documentary called "My Friend Hugo."
Maduro used the parade and a speech later at the mausoleum to bash the United States as the "imperial power of the north." He called Panama's government a "lackey" and announced he was breaking off relations with that country because it asked for the Organization of American States to discuss the situation in Venezuela. Maduro considers the OAS to be dominated by Washington.
"We don't accept the interventionism of anyone, because our international policy is a policy of peace, of cooperation, of respect, of the anti-imperialist Latin American union," Maduro said.
Maduro has reached a stalemate with the political opposition. His administration shows no sign of crumbling, but he appears unable to stop the daily student-led protests that the government says have left 18 dead. Instead, he moves ahead with a peace effort the opposition calls farcical while his foreign minister rebuffs offers for outside mediation.
Inflation in Venezuela hit 56 percent last year, slashing the buying power of the poor who Chavez lifted above the poverty line using the state's oil profits. Simple grocery shopping has become a daily odyssey as residents hunt for scarce items like flour, cooking oil and toilet paper, and wait hours in line when they're lucky enough to find them.
Ruben Velasquez, 44, making his way from the parade grounds, said the protests are simply an expression of the situation people are living now in Venezuela.
He said life had worsened in every way since Chavez's death, particularly with regard to the economy and crime. He supports Maduro, because he works in the government customs agency, but only to a point. "If things escape from his (Maduro) hands I don't think he's going to have support from anyone."
Luisa Teresa Guzman, 64, said she still cries over Chavez. Wearing a red beret, red shirt and red pants at the entrance to the parade grounds, she said Maduro can carry the revolution forward. "That's why Chavez left him (Maduro) there."
Even though the opposition parties did not schedule a march Wednesday, protests broke out in various parts of the capital and the interior.
"I'm fighting for my country," said Maria Cortez, a 63-year-old community organizer. Dangling from a street sign high above the intersection in a middle-class Caracas neighborhood was a life-size dummy dressed in surgical scrubs, face mask and booties with a sign that called for Cuban doctors to leave Venezuela. "It's been 15 years of keeping our mouths shut, 15 years and the people can't take it anymore."
In San Antonio de los Altos, in Miranda state, protesters blocked roads, but were repelled by hundreds of national guard, national police and other authorities with tear gas and rubber bullets. At least two were injured, one with a bullet wound in the leg and the other with multiple plastic buckshot wounds to the face, said Lyndons Guzman, emergency director in the Carrizal municipality.
Back at the parade grounds, 33-year-old Nina Ruiz said she's not political and only went to the parade because she works for a government agency that made her go.
"Everything is out of control," she said. "Nothing is the same."
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.