Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched on the federal tax agency Tuesday, ripping up their tax forms and vowing to further deprive President Hugo Chavez's government of revenue as a 5-week-old strike that has dried up oil income continued.
But the leftist former paratrooper, who survived a coup in April, vowed to resist what he called protesters' "economic war" to oust him as president of the world's No. 5 oil exporter. He also warned that tax evasion carries penalties of up to seven years in prison.
"It's a crime not to pay taxes," he said in a speech he ordered broadcast on all TV and radio stations, interrupting coverage of the march. "We will not tolerate it. We'll take all actions necessary to make sure every last cent is paid because it belongs to the people."
Protesters cheered and blew whistles as they tore up blank tax forms at the doors of the tax agency. They called for individuals and businesses to stop paying income and value-added taxes.
The march was the first opposition protest in the capital since clashes among Chavez foes and followers and security forces left two people dead last week.
"This government uses our money to repress the people. We're not going to give one more cent to Hugo Chavez," said Luis Carlos Bustillos, 59, a veterinarian. "This will cause chaos for a few months, but it's better than chaos for a lifetime."