CARACAS, Venezuela, Mar 13 (Reuters) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez held a huge military parade to celebrate changes he made to the nation's flag, a reform foes rejected as a personal whim of the leftist leader.
Venezuela's National Assembly, dominated by the president's allies, approved the modified flag last week after Chavez proposed changes as a tribute to Venezuelan-born, South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar, whom Chavez says inspired his socialist revolution.
A small group of Chavez supporters briefly traded blows with enraged opposition marchers protesting the new flag, which features an eighth star and a white horse on the coat of arms galloping to the left instead of the right.
In a ceremony on the 200th anniversary of the country's flag, Chavez raised the new version at the national pantheon before attending the parade where soldiers and reservists marched with participants in his social programs for the poor.
''Eight stars now flutter in the wind in Venezuela, seven originals and the eighth that Simon Bolivar decreed,'' Chavez said yesterday. ''And the white horse is now free.'' Chavez, a former soldier, was elected seven years ago and has promised a revolution for the poor in the world's No. 5 oil exporter. His critics at home and in Washington worry about his alliance with Communist Cuba and say he has eroded democracy by exercising authoritarian control.
Several hundred opposition supporters marched in Caracas to protest the new flag. One group of demonstrators carried seven white stars and an eighth red one painted with the Soviet hammer and sickle emblem.
Scuffles briefly broke out after Chavez loyalists hoisted the new flag along the route of the protest march and opposition supporters tried to take it down. Police quickly quelled the clashes.
''I'm here to defend my flag, you can't change those things without asking the people if they agree or not,'' said Rosa de Pool, 70, a secretary participating in the opposition protest.
Last year Chavez dismissed the horse image on the flag as ''imperialist'' after his daughter asked him why it ran to the right with its head facing backward. Chavez said Bolivar decreed in 1817 another star should be added to the flag to represent the addition of a province to Venezuela.
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