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VENEZUELA
Chávez calls for national dialogue
Andrés Cañizález
4/17/2002
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Putting aside differences, Chávez turns to the Catholic Church to help resolve the country’s crisis.

He had fought with them and insulted them, but when he found himself in the tightest spot in his three years in office, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez appealed to two Catholic cardinals to ensure his safety while he was detained.

He also announced his administration’s new position: a willingness to negotiate.

Mérida Archbishop Baltasar Porras accompanied Chávez in the early hours of April 12, when he left the presidential palace after a coup staged by his own top military leaders, who placed businessman Pedro Carmona in the presidency.

Forty-eight hours later, Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco stayed with Chávez on the Caribbean island of La Orchila, the last of five places where he was held before retaking power. Velasco also accompanied Chávez on his triumphant return to the capital.

In his first statements after returning to office, besides constantly invoking God, Chávez made it clear that "there will be rectification" in his administration, which he said will include "national dialogue." He specifically mentioned the Catholic Church, saying, "Let us work together for social peace in the country."

This marked a radical shift from the position Chávez held before the coup, when he once called the bishops "a tumor on Venezuelan society" (LP, March 11, 2002).

When he returned to power, Chávez said he would convene a Federal Government Council consisting of leaders at all levels of government, including opposition governors and mayors.

That measure, which is provided for in the Constitution whose approval Chávez spearheaded in 1999 (LP, Dec. 27, 1999), was suggested to him by another leading church figure, the Rev. Arturo Sosa, head of the local Jesuit province and a noted political analyst.

Chávez spoke to Sosa by telephone on April 11, as the situation in the country was deteriorating.

That day, a large group of opposition protesters marched to the seat of government to call for Chávez’s resignation. Meanwhile, a national strike called by business and labor leaders was in its third day. Although the work stoppage was only partially successful, the strikers were also demanding that the president step down.

The strike came on top of a conflict that had begun on April 4, when top executives of the state-run oil monopoly, Petroleum of Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), walked off the job after Chávez appointed a new board of directors that the executives said had a pro-government bias. Petroleum production is Venezuela’s economic motor and main revenue producer.

After talking with Sosa, Chávez announced on national television that he would convene a Federal Government Council, but by then the military coup was already in motion.

The April 11 street protests were the prelude to Chávez’s overthrow early the next morning. Twenty-five people died and more than 100 were injured in confusing events in downtown Caracas, as opposition protesters faced off against Chávez supporters.

The events reflected a rupture in Venezuelan society that analysts say will persist if the government cannot create a climate of tolerance and respect for adversaries, and launch a national dialogue that leads to concrete results.

"Even before the current crisis, we were warning the government that it faced the challenge of fostering tolerance among all Venezuelans," said Carlos Correa, coordinator of the Venezuelan Program for Human Rights Education and Action (PROVEA), a non-governmental human rights organization.

On April 15, in his first press conference after returning to office, Chávez reiterated his decision to convene the Federal Government Council as a step toward "national dialogue," a plan he had discussed at length with Velasco.

The new conciliatory stance is in sharp contrast to the administration’s earlier attitude toward its opponents, especially the opposition press (LP, Jan. 28, 2002).

At the press conference, Chávez apologized to the media and the PDVSA managers for his verbal abuse in the past.

He also announced that a new PDVSA board would be named "through consultation and consensus." Before the coup, Chávez had refused to review his decision to name directors who were opposed by PDVSA’s top management.

Human rights workers say the government should also launch an efficient, impartial investigation into the events surrounding the coup and Chávez’s return to power.

"A thorough investigation, with citizen participation, must be done to determine who was responsible on either side for the events that occurred" between April 11 and 13, Correa said.

Although most of the dead were killed by highly accurate gunshots, presumably fired by sharpshooters, there are conflicting accounts about who was responsible. According to some versions, they were ordered by Chávez or his supporters, while others hold opposition Mayor Alfredo Peña of Caracas responsible.

By April 13, it was also clear that at least nine more people were killed and another 48 injured, most of them during repression of pro-Chávez protests in low-income districts.

"The government faces the challenge of governing in a country that is split in two. That must be the central issue of our first Cabinet meeting with President Chávez," Education Minister Aristóbulo Izturiz said after the Chávez government returned to power.

"The lesson for all of us from these events must be tolerance and respect for political plurality in the country," Izturiz said, adding that during the crisis there had been extremists "on both sides."

The crisis also shook the military. The outcome was decided on April 13, when commanders of several military installations refused to recognize Carmona as president, taking a strong stand that defied top military leaders.

"I recognize that there has been a fracture in the military," Gen. Belisario Landis, commander of the military National Guard, said on April 14. Landis was among the commanders who remained loyal to Chávez.

Chávez is a retired military officer who staged an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-93) (LP, Sept. 17, 1998). The armed forces have played a leading role in his government (LP, Dec. 18, 2000), especially because of the weakness of his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). The political party, created in 1998, swept him into office on Dec. 6, 1998, nearly 20 points ahead of his nearest rival (LP, Dec, 17, 1998).

Although he did not say so publicly, Chávez spent much of the first two days after his return to power in conversations with military leaders.


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