Associated Press
Opposition demonstrators raise their handcuffed arms in front of a police officer during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans commemorated the 50th anniversary of an uprising that toppled the South American country's last dictator on Wednesday — arguing whether their democracy is slipping away or growing stronger under President Hugo Chavez.

As Venezuelans celebrated the 1958 overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez, major opposition parties signed an agreement to coordinate efforts in state and local elections this year in hopes of keeping Chavez from amassing more power or staying in office indefinitely.

Opposition leader Enrique Mendoza called the unity pact "the best tribute to 50 years" of democracy and said it would help capitalize on Chavez's defeat in a Dec. 2 referendum that would have dropped barriers to his continual re-election.

Venezuela's major opposition parties agreed to use polls and primaries to choose joint anti-Chavez candidates in November's gubernatorial and municipal elections.

Thousands of Chavez's critics then took to the streets waving red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags to commemorate Jan. 23 — a date that has underscored the country's political divisions since Chavez took office in 1999.

For years, Chavez has called the anniversary the start of a "fake democracy," preferring instead to celebrate the failed coup he led on Feb. 4, 1992.

Opposition politician Cesar Perez Vivas said the socialist president wants to "remain in power forever" and vowed to challenge any future constitutional changes that could let the president run for re-election in 2012 and beyond.

The president's supporters, meanwhile, commemorated the date by laying wreaths at the grave of Fabricio Ojeda, a journalist-turned-guerrilla who helped organize street protests that culminated in the end of Perez Jimenez's regime.

Ojeda's daughter Marianela — a Chavez supporter — argued that elected leaders who succeeded Perez Jimenez betrayed democracy by outlawing Venezuela's Communist Party and imprisoning its leaders.

"It's said that was the beginning of democracy, but it wasn't true democracy," she said.

Ojeda joined Cuban-supported rebels who took up arms against the elected government that followed Perez Jimenez, and died in jail in 1966. The government at the time said it was suicide, but his supporters say Ojeda was murdered.

Members of Chavez's ruling party also gathered at the San Carlos barracks, a military fort that served in the 1960s as a prison for Marxist rebels. In a ceremony, they honored the hundreds of Venezuelans who were killed or imprisoned by security forces during Perez Jimenez's six-year rule.

Chavez, a close friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, says he believes deeply in democracy and notes he has repeatedly won re-election by wide margins. He has said he hopes to govern into the 2020s or 2030s to establish a socialist state in Venezuela, the top oil exporter in South America.