YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Venezuela Military Stages Rebellion

S. America: President negotiates the terms of his resignation after deadly street protests, army says.


CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's top generals declared themselves in rebellion against President Hugo Chavez and tanks rolled through the streets of this capital Thursday after a day of protests against the government that left at least 10 people dead.

Early today, Gen. Efrain Vasquez, head of the army, announced that Chavez was negotiating the terms of his resignation with military officials.

Late Thursday, National Guard Gen. Alberto Camacho Kairuz said that Chavez had "abandoned" his office and that the military was in control of the country. But the head of Venezuela's National Assembly said Chavez was still in power and was meeting with his ministers.

Military leaders said they had asked Chavez to resign and call new elections, and Globovision TV later reported that the president, who was elected in 1998, had quit, but there was no immediate confirmation.

The political upheaval came as more than 200,000 Venezuelans marched here on the third day of a general strike against Chavez's government and as about 40 military officers called for his resignation.

Chavez accused the media of fomenting the unrest and forced five privately owned television stations off the air. Hours later, National Guard troops rebelled against Chavez and surrounded the government-operated station, forcing it off the air. A crowd of civilians celebrated outside.

"All of the country is under the control of the national armed forces," Camacho said. "The government has abandoned its functions."

Local media earlier reported that Chavez's family had been flown out of the country, but those reports could not be confirmed.

The dramatic developments followed hours of street battles and bloodshed in central Caracas. Some witnesses said snipers positioned on rooftops had fired on the anti-Chavez protesters.

The demonstrations were set off by Chavez's decision earlier this year to replace top executives at the government oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela. The appointments, seen by many here as politically motivated, became a symbol of what many believe is Chavez's heavy-handed and sometimes arbitrary rule.

Thousands of protesting employees brought most of Venezuela's oil industry to a halt. They were joined this week by thousands more workers when the nation's largest labor confederation called for a general strike.

Venezuela is the third-largest supplier of oil to the United States. Some analysts believe that a prolonged disruption of the supply would cause prices in the U.S. to spike.

Leaders of the general strike said earlier Wednesday that they would continue protesting in the streets indefinitely, even if Chavez decreed a state of emergency and deployed soldiers to quash the demonstrations.

"We would rebel against any decision of that nature," said Carlos Ortega, head of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, the country's largest and most powerful labor union.

On Thursday afternoon, with tear gas wafting toward the presidential palace, Chavez took to the airwaves to say he would not step down. In a long and rambling address, he called those marching against him subversives.

The president, a maverick populist whose nationalist policies have often run afoul of the United States, asked for his supporters to take to the streets to confront the demonstrators. Thousands joined a pro-Chavez rally near the presidential palace, and some fought with the anti-Chavez marchers.

But Chavez's fate seemed sealed after Vasquez, one of Chavez's key supporters, broke with the president Thursday night.

"The military has been used for political purposes," the general said in a radio address. "Tonight, we ask for the forgiveness of the Venezuelan people. The armed forces are not for fighting the people."

Vasquez ordered all troops to remain in their barracks, saying they should not participate in any actions to quell the growing popular protests.

"This is not a coup, it is not an act of insubordination," the general said. "It is a position in solidarity with the people of Venezuela."

Protesters advanced toward the Miraflores presidential palace and threw rocks at National Guard troops sent to disperse them. In addition to those killed, more than 80 people were wounded.

Elsewhere, more than 150 armed men, some in uniform and others dressed as civilians, surrounded the offices of CMT television. Other stations evacuated their facilities, fearing attacks by Chavez supporters, known here as "Bolivarian circles."

The violence and the decision to censor the media appeared to have quickly eroded Chavez's remaining support in the military.

"From this moment, this government should end," Camacho, surrounded by 30 fellow officers, told a news conference at National Guard headquarters. He said he was resigning as vice minister for security.

Camacho called for the formation of a provisional government junta and appealed for support from other branches of the armed forces and the Roman Catholic Church.

Los Angeles Times Articles