MIAMI, March 7 (UPI) -- A small number of supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have formed groups around the United States, including the first one in a Miami suburb.
In Miami at least, however, Chavez supporters are outnumbered, as evidenced by a recent demonstration opposing the Venezuelan leader that drew 60,000.
The 17 groups from Connecticut to Wyoming are known as Bolivarian Circles, after Simon Bolivar, the general who liberated several Latin American countries from Spain in the 1800s.
The Miami circle was formed a year ago on the anniversary of Chavez's failed coup in 1992. It has only 180 members but is still the largest in the nation.
Jesus Soto, 36, announced the establishment of the first circle in downtown Miami, wearing a red beret and military fatigues.
"Our work is to try to change the image that Chavez is a dictator," said this week from his home.
"In Venezuela is a deep democracy. We elected this president," he said. "The opposition here is telling the media lies."
The circles in the United States will hold their first national assembly in New York this month, and Chavez representatives from Venezuelan plan to attend.
The Venezuelan government also has scheduled a circle meeting next month in Caracas.
"There are circles in Bilbao (Spain), Madrid, Denmark, all over the place," Guillermo Garcia Ponce, Chavez advisory committee coordinator, told The Miami Herald in Caracas. He agreed that south Florida has become a stronghold for opponents of Chavez. "I suppose (the Miami circle) will have to keep a low profile," Garcia said.
Chavez's leftist government and the opposition remain at odds despite intensive international mediation efforts. The opposition's recent two-month general strike further wounded a weak economy and left the country facing an economic trouble that could to lead to serious shortages of many basic goods.
Venezuela is highly reliant on imports, but the strike closed ports and affected the oil production that pays for most of the imports. In response, the government has imposed strict currency controls and price restrictions on basic goods.