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Interim Venezuelan President Resigns

April 14, 2002|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARACAS, Venezuela — Supporters of deposed President Hugo Chavez stormed back into power late Saturday, making the new interim president resign less than 48 hours after strongman Chavez had been forced from office.

The stunning turnabout followed a day of violence and confusion that climaxed with key military leaders declaring their loyalty to Chavez.

Pedro Carmona resigned as interim president hours after thousands of Chavez supporters surrounded and took control of the Miraflores presidential palace. The prominent businessman had taken power Friday in the face of massive anti-Chavez demonstrations.

Chavez's vice president--who just hours earlier had been in hiding, fearing arrest--took the oath of office Saturday evening. Diosdado Cabello said he would be a "temporary president" until Chavez returned. Army Gen. Rafael Arrieta said Chavez, under arrest since late Thursday, would soon return to Caracas, the capital, and reassume office, perhaps as early as this morning. A Cabinet minister said Chavez was at an island naval base.

"The only president of Venezuela is Hugo Chavez," Jesus del Valle, head of the army's honor guard, said on the government television station, which was taken over late Saturday by Chavez supporters.

It remained unclear early today whether the rest of the military would back Chavez's return to power. Carmona's whereabouts were unknown.

The upheaval, which claimed at least nine lives Saturday, pointed to the deep rifts in Venezuelan society. The country is deeply divided between rich and poor and by its love and hate for the charismatic Chavez, a former paratrooper who first came to prominence during a failed coup in 1992.

On Saturday, Caracas witnessed the latest chapter in a weeklong drama. Gunshots rang out in the Catia slum, a Chavez bastion, as police tried unsuccessfully to contain the protests. Many poor residents marched and rode motorcycles toward the center of the capital city, angrily calling for Chavez's reinstatement.

Two days earlier, it had been thousands of mostly middle-class Venezuelans who joined an anti-Chavez rally that ended in violence and led to Chavez's ouster, three years into his term as the nation's democratically elected president.

"Here there are two Venezuelas," said Luis Alfonso Godoy, a retired soldier who joined a pro-Chavez rally Saturday outside the Fuerte Tiuna military base. "Chavez was the first president to speak for the poor. He worked for us 24 hours a day."

Chavez polarized the country with populist, anti-American rhetoric even as he implemented budget-cutting measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund.

On Friday, Carmona, the leader of Venezuela's largest business association, announced a counterrevolution that undid Chavez's control of all three branches of government. The National Assembly was dissolved and the Supreme Court dismissed--Chavez had filled both with his allies, in part by holding frequent elections and referendums.

With their patron in custody, several of Chavez's ministers went into hiding. Others were arrested by Carmona's government, including Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who was both interior and justice minister.

The actions drew criticism from several Latin American leaders.

In Argentina, President Eduardo Duhalde said Saturday that Carmona's decision to dismiss the National Assembly was "typical of a dictatorship." Nicaragua, Paraguay and Panama also labeled the new government illegitimate.

Mexican President Vicente Fox had said that his country would not recognize Carmona's interim government.

Perhaps buoyed by the international condemnations, key members of Chavez's regime stepped up their actions against Carmona's government.

Cabello said Saturday that Chavez's supporters had taken control of the Miraflores palace.

"I am the president in this moment," Cabello said in a telephone interview with CNN's Spanish-language news program. "The president [Chavez] is not in office. So I am in control." But, he added, "I can't go out into the street because my life is in danger."

Just after 10 p.m. Saturday, Cabello, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, took the oath as "temporary president" in the Miraflores palace in a hastily arranged ceremony.

Military leaders also balked at charges here and abroad that their arrest of Chavez and their support for the creation of a new government had been, in effect, a coup.

On Saturday, the same generals who had taken to the airwaves early Friday to announce that Chavez had resigned took to the airwaves again to criticize the government that succeeded him.

"We demand respect for the constitution," said Gen. Efrain Vasquez, head of the army, as other generals stood impassively at his side. "Our action [Friday] was not a coup. . . . We believe there should be corrections in the process of transition to a new government."

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