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18 April 2002 Edition

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Chavez - Resurrection man

The setting reminded everyone of the events of 1973 in Chile. At the time, strikes organised by the Chilean elite marked the beginning of the end for the democratically elected government of socialist president Salvador Allende and facilitated one of the bloodiest dictatorships worldwide. For the last few months, the same strategy has been applied step by step in Venezuela. But this time it did not work, as citizens took to the streets of Venezuela to demonstrate against the interim government put in place after a military coup ousted their elected president, Hugo Chavez. Amazingly, this mass action succeeded in restoring Chavez to power. Venezuelan people have shown the world what democracy is about.

"I'm still stupefied. I'm still assimilating," Chavez said in a live TV address to the nation after flying by helicopter to the palace in Caracas from captivity on a Venezuelan island in the Caribbean, the last of five places where he was held by the military after the short-lived coup. Chavez called for calm as thousands of Venezuelans took over the streets to celebrate, singing the national anthem and setting off firecrackers to celebrate his return.

The coup that deposed Hugo Chavez took place on Friday 12 April and the excuse was reported repression against an opposition demonstration the previous night, which resulted in the deaths of 16 demonstrators. It has since transpired that some of the demonstrators were killed by members of the police acting on the orders of Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, one of the leading members of Chavez's opposition.

First information did not mention a coup-d-├ętat, but referred to Chavez's resignation, as did a statement from the US administration, which blamed Chavez for his own downfall. "They put a piece of paper on the table saying 'Resign', but I said 'I am a president being held prisoner, but I am not resigned" explained Chavez after his release.

A new interim government was put in place by Venezuela's economic elite. The new president, Pedro Carmona, a business mogul, head of the country's leading employers' organisation, was sworn in on Friday 12 April, only to resign a day later. This followed widespread street protests and rebellion by several senior military officers, who refused to go along with the new 'democratic' government. At least 25 people were killed and hundreds wounded in the upheaval that followed Chavez's ouster. The police used brutal force against demonstrators. Scores of pro-Chavez activists were arrested and some were disappeared in those 24 hours.

Only hours before Carmona's resignation, his designated foreign minister, Jose Rodriguez Iturbe, had met with the ambassadors of the United States and Spain, countries that favour the ousting of Chavez.



A people's leader


Chavez, the 47-year-old son of poor teachers, is popular with his people. He arrived to the political arena on 4 February 1992 when, as an army paratrooper, he led a military attempt against the government of president Rafael Caldera, who was later impeached on corruption charges.

The coup was a success everywhere but in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela. Chavez was arrested and imprisoned. In 1994, he was freed by president Rafael Caldera.

By 1997, Chavez's political project, the Fifth Republic Movement, was in full swing and in 1998 he launched a presidential campaign supported by the minority left-wing parties. He won the presidential elections with 56 percent of the vote.

However, his populist style and his radical plan of reforms - including the review of land-ownership and a proposed tax on oil revenue to increase funding for public and social services - did not gain the support of the political and economic elites of Venezuela.

Some of Chavez's policies related to the military did not go down well with some army officers, as the Venezuelan president followed Cuba's example and ordered the troops to carry out works usually assigned to civilians, like social work, building roads and bridges, and food distribution.

Internationally, Chavez's friendship with Cuba and his opposition to the neo-liberal policies of international institutions and of the US, together with his attempts to revamp the role of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, clearly irritated the US and the European Union.

Venezuela has the largest reserves of oil outside the Middle East and the country is the third supplier to the US, providing about 15% of its stocks. Previous governments had favoured increases in production, so to keep prices down, but President Chavez saw the market with new eyes and lowered production in an effort to increase prices. The shortfall has worried the White House, given the simultaneous strains on prices due to violence in the Middle East and the export embargo imposed by Iraq.

World oil markets reacted quickly to Chavez's ouster. Prices fell more than 6% on Friday 12 April as analysts predicted that the change in regimes would help lower prices for the time to come.

Chavez also sells oil to Fidel Castro, supplying Cuba with about 53,000 barrels of oil a day, half the island's total supply, and at discount prices. One of the first decisions of the now deposed interim government was to stop oil exports to Cuba.

Chavez has also refused to allow US government aircraft gathering intelligence to fly over Venezuela and he denounced bombing raids on Afghanistan, saying the United States was "fighting terror with terror". He has obstructed the Bush administration's plans to set up a hemispheric free-trade area.

This latest victory for democracy is just one of many hopeful signs in Latin American politics. Indigenous movements in Ecuador deposed three governments in the last three years. In Argentina, the population took to the streets last year and ousted the government responsible for the collapse of the economy. Venezuelans have now come out in support of the man many believe can challenge the social structures that hold 80% of the population under the poverty line.


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