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Venezuela's Strongman President Resigns, Placed Under Arrest

S. America: Military arrests Chavez and names businessman as interim president.

April 14, 2002|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez resigned as president and was placed under arrest by his former military allies Friday, after his charismatic reign as Venezuela's nationalist strongman came crashing down in a flurry of protest and violence.

The military and its civilian allies named a 35-member "government of democratic transition" to run the country, headed by a prominent businessman and top Chavez critic. Pedro Carmona, the leader of Venezuela's largest business association, became interim president.

Carmona promised to hold elections within a year to choose a new president for this oil-rich but economically troubled South American nation. The new ruling council announced a major overhaul of Venezuela's government, including the immediate firing of all members of the pro-Chavez National Assembly and Supreme Court.

"We must go about returning to the rule of law," Carmona, 60, told supporters after taking the oath of office at the presidential palace. "Strongman rule will be left behind. I will act in the most open manner, working with all sectors of the country."

The measures amounted to a counterrevolution, led primarily by the nation's business sector, to the highly personalized state that Chavez built in the three years since becoming president. The former paratrooper allied Venezuela with Fidel Castro's Cuba, espoused a fiery populist rhetoric and encouraged the growth of a cult of personality.

In a major shift in foreign policy, Carmona's government also said the state-owned oil company would discontinue Chavez's controversial oil sales to the Communist regime in Cuba.

Cuban Foreign Relations Minister Felipe Perez Roque said that his country still recognized Chavez as president and that the overthrow was illegal.

Chavez's supporters at home and abroad called the events in Venezuela a coup. Chavez, who led a failed coup 10 years ago as a lieutenant colonel, has not spoken in public since his last, defiant speech to the Venezuelan people Thursday afternoon, in which he said he would not step down.

In Caracas, the capital, Atty. Gen. Isaias Rodriguez said he had not seen evidence that Chavez had resigned.

"Why don't they allow him to be interviewed?" Rodriguez asked. "Did he commit a crime? Is resigning a crime?"

Rodriguez called the Carmona government "unconstitutional." A few hours later, Carmona announced that Rodriguez had been relieved of his duties.

Even the name of the country was changed Friday. Chavez fancied himself the true heir to the mantle of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century independence leader, and had renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The new government announced, to loud cheers from its supporters in the palace, that the nation would once again be called, simply, the Republic of Venezuela.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer declared the Bush administration's support for new elections in Venezuela and condemned the actions of Chavez's government against protesters that left at least 14 people dead and more than 200 wounded Thursday.

"According to the best information we have, the government suppressed what was a peaceful demonstration of the people," Fleischer said.

Several Latin American leaders, however, were critical of the new government. In Costa Rica, leaders at the summit of the 19-nation Rio Group of Latin American countries criticized "the interruption of constitutional order" in Venezuela.

Mexican President Vicente Fox said his country would not recognize Carmona's government until new elections were held, although he said it wouldn't sever diplomatic relations.

The streets of Caracas were calm Friday, a day after tens of thousands of people marched on the presidential palace to demand Chavez's resignation. Some witnesses said snipers positioned on rooftops had fired on the anti-Chavez protesters.

Chavez could face charges in the protesters' deaths. Still, he retained the support of an untold number of Venezuelans, especially among the poor. On Friday evening, the mood remained tense.

"How can it be that our president, the man we chose to lead us, is rotting in a jail cell?" said one of dozens of pro-Chavez callers to Faith and Happiness, a religious radio station.

"We repudiate, we hate what has happened," another caller said. "A group of military men has stabbed our president in the back."

Chavez is a cult hero to many impoverished Venezuelans, even though in the final months of his presidency he implemented tough economic policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund and sharply reduced government spending.

There were reports of violent protests Friday evening in some poor neighborhoods of the capital.

In a ceremony before Carmona was officially sworn into office, the members of the new government took pains to give his administration a veneer of legitimacy, scheduling legislative elections for December.

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