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Interim Venezuelan President Resigns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.”

Vasquez said that the military would support Carmona only if he agreed to bring back the National Assembly. About an hour later, Carmona said in a telephone interview with CNN that he would comply with the demand.

The interview was the president’s only public statement of the day before he resigned late Saturday in a call to a radio station.

Earlier, it had been unclear who was in control of Caracas, the capital with 2 million people, and the rest of the country.

A carnival atmosphere reigned outside the Miraflores palace, where thousands of Chavez supporters had gathered, more than a few of them drunk. Some soldiers inside the palace told reporters that they had switched sides in the conflict and now supported Chavez.

Cheers rang out as several of Chavez’s ministers approached the palace, including Maria Cristina Iglesias, who was Chavez’s minister of labor. Earlier, several ministers from Carmona’s government joined reporters in a panicked flight from the palace through an emergency tunnel.

Pro-Chavez mobs surrounded at least two television stations that had been highly critical of Chavez’s rule, breaking windows. On Thursday, Chavez had ordered the closure of those and other privately owned television stations, saying they were fomenting a rebellion against his rule.

“We are showing these images so that the metropolitan police and the National Guard come to our assistance,” said an unidentified announcer on RCTV as that station broadcast live a mob attack on its offices.

“As the father of a family, as a Venezuelan,” the announcer continued in a pleading voice, “I want to say this kind of action will not do our country any good.”

After a three-hour siege, Chavez supporters took over the station--apparently without bloodshed--and used it and other stations to broadcast their pronouncements.

The pro-Chavez demonstrations began late Friday on the outskirts of the city. Protesters erected barricades blocking several highways, including the one leading to the international airport.

A doctor at a Caracas morgue who asked not to be identified said Saturday morning that at least 30 people had been killed in the previous night’s violence.

A Caracas city official said at least nine people had been killed Saturday, including a policeman.

The bloodshed provided a vivid counterpoint to the repression of Thursday’s anti-Chavez march, in which at least 15 people were killed. Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who joined that march remained inside their homes Saturday.

“Chavez was a madman. He set this country back 40 years,” said Augusto Garbari, 36, a psychiatrist who said he saw people near him shot while marching in the anti-Chavez rally. “He took us to this high level of irony and sarcasm, like something you see in the worst countries of Africa.”

Military officials said that Chavez resigned early Friday morning. But by late Saturday, a growing number of voices were questioning whether he left office voluntarily.

Chavez had not spoken in public since Thursday, when he defiantly promised to remain in power. His daughter, Marisabel Rodriguez, told a Venezuelan television station Saturday that Chavez had not stepped down.

“He did not resign, he did not sign the letter” the generals gave him, she said. “He said he was ready to resign, but only in front of the [National] Assembly, as required by the law.”

A minister in the Carmona government revealed Saturday that Chavez had resigned only orally and said that he would be sent abroad once he submitted his resignation in writing.

Also Saturday, Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, head of the National Guard, added his voice to those of other military leaders backing away from Carmona’s aggressive pursuit of Chavez’s supporters.

“We have to recognize that President Hugo Chavez has support from important sectors of the people,” Martinez said, conspicuously referring to Chavez as president in the present tense.


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