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Venezuela's Chavez Aims for Healing

April 15, 2002|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CARACAS, Venezuela — Free after 48 hours under military arrest, President Hugo Chavez retook control of Venezuela on Sunday and began anew to place his personal stamp on the country.

He said he would seek "national reconciliation," but he also held his chief opponent in custody and hinted at "corrective action" against the media that supported last week's attempt to oust him.

Chavez appeared to emerge stronger than ever from the conflict with opposition forces that was led, largely, by disaffected members of the middle class and the business community. Badly miscalculating the level of support for Chavez among military officers and the poor, those forces brought to power an interim president who lasted only a day before Chavez was returned to this capital early Sunday to resume his post.

The former paratrooper's first address to the Venezuelan people, just before dawn Sunday, was vintage Chavez. For an hour, he told the story of his days and nights in captivity, giving the tale tragic and comic turns and using props like the crucifix he said he had held while praying for "the safety of my wife and my children."

Chavez also made an important concession to this country's restive opposition, agreeing to fire the oil officials whose appointment in February had provoked last week's crisis.

"There will be no retaliation, no revenge," he said. "I didn't come back to hold a witch hunt."

Later, the president visited the military base where an air force general had been among the first to declare himself in rebellion against Pedro Carmona, the hapless interim president who displaced Chavez. Carmona's ministers fled the Miraflores presidential palace in panic Saturday night when a large pro-Chavez crowd surrounded the building.

According to Reuters, the Roman Catholic Church said security forces killed 23 people in riots Saturday night, but there was no official word on casualties. State television said nine people died.

A mild-mannered leader of the nation's largest business federation, Carmona was under arrest Sunday, and his family asked the Catholic Church to help ensure his safety.

Chavez, who is in the second year of a six-year term, said in a radio interview Sunday that Carmona was "being detained but is not being held incommunicado like I was. . . . He has a right to a defense attorney and is being investigated by the attorney general to determine the charges against him."

Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who serves as both justice and interior minister, said the military officers who rebelled against Chavez would also be held to account for "bringing the country to the brink of civil war."

"Let this [episode] serve as a lesson to us that we should always maintain the constitutional order," said Rodriguez, who had been arrested Friday by Carmona's government.

Carmona had earned the wrath of many Latin American leaders Friday when he took an extraordinary series of measures to undo Chavez's control of all three branches of government. He dismissed the national legislature and the Supreme Court, both of which are dominated by Chavez supporters.

The United States was one of the few countries to suggest that Chavez's overthrow might have been justified. On Sunday, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" that Chavez needed to "respect constitutional processes."

"I hope that Hugo Chavez takes the message that his people sent him--that his own policies are not working for the Venezuelan people, that he's dealt with them in a highhanded fashion," Rice said.

Once supportive of Chavez's nationalist politics, many middle-class Venezuelans have grown tired of what they see as his arbitrary style of rule. They formed a loose coalition to bring him down--including business, labor, church and civic groups.

"Now Chavez has shown that he can rule without the middle class," Anibal Romero, a professor of political science at the University of Simon Bolivar here, said Sunday. "But he can't make the country prosperous without them. I'm not sure Chavez has learned that yet."

The rebellion against Chavez failed, Romero said, because of the "naivete" of its leaders, most of whom have little political experience.

Chavez's surprising return to power brought celebrations in both Cuba and Iraq. The official Iraqi News Agency released a statement that was sent Sunday to Chavez from President Saddam Hussein.

"We received with overwhelming and great happiness news of the foiling of the coup attempt that took place in your country," the message said. Chavez visited Iraq last year.

In Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, officials issued repeated calls for calm, as scattered looting and rioting similar to what accompanied the demonstrations for Chavez's return continued Sunday morning.

The unrest pointed to the underlying tensions in a country where the majority of people live below the poverty line.

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