TOPICS > Politics

Return to Power

April 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez wasted no time thanking those who helped return him to power. Yesterday, he spoke at a base commanded by one of several military officers who over the weekend championed Chavez’s restoration to the presidency.

HUGO CHAVEZ (Translated): Despite everything, looking back at the past years, I told myself early that morning, of course, things are not going to remain this way. Now is when they are really going to get to know the Venezuelan people, the Venezuelan soldiers, even if they may not really want to know the truth.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chavez was forced out of the presidency early Friday by a group of military commanders. They claimed Chavez had resigned after ordering a deadly attack on opposition demonstrators. On Saturday, after word spread that Chavez had not agreed to resign, thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets demanding their president be returned to power. There was looting during the night, as demonstrators protested the coup.

Meanwhile, the man installed as interim President, Pedro Carmona, resigned. Later he was arrested. Carmona, the head of the country’s largest business association, had been sworn in on Friday. Before dawn Sunday, Chavez triumphantly reclaimed the presidential palace. After an emotional greeting by his ministers and aides, Chavez addressed the nation in a conciliatory tone.

HUGO CHAVEZ (Translated): We need a lot of spiritual peace at this time for the whole country for every section. I make a call for peace, I make a call for calm, I make a call for common sense from all, I make a call for the whole country to reunite. These events that bought blood and pain are nevertheless, and should be, a huge lesson for us all.

KWAME HOLMAN: The newly restored president also appealed for calm as thousands of Venezuelans celebrated on the streets. Since Chavez’s return, more than 100 military officials have been detained in connection with the failed coup. While many Latin American nations welcomed Chavez’s reinstallation as an affirmation of democracy, top officials in the Bush administration said the Venezuelan president should be more responsive to his people.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: 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 high-handed fashion.

KWAME HOLMAN: Venezuela is the world’s fourth largest oil exporter. Strikes at the country’s state-owned oil company fueled the unrest leading to Chavez’s ouster last week. Oil prices, on the upswing during that turmoil, rose sharply again today after Chavez’s surprise return.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on the return of President Hugo Chavez, we turn to Andres Oppenheimer, a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Miami Herald. His most recent book, Ojos Vendados, or “Blindfolded Eyes,” is about corruption in Latin America. Andres, Pedro Carmona was in power from 4 a.m. Friday to 10:30 p.m. Saturday. What happened in the interim that brought Hugo Chavez back?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Several things, Elizabeth. First, it was obvious that there were cracks in the military. The Venezuelan military were not as solidly behind the coup as the coup plotters obviously thought.

Second there was an immediate reaction from Latin American countries. The change of government, as you mentioned, happened at 4 a.m. Friday, like at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m., the Latin American presidents who were meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica – it was a long scheduled meeting — came out immediately condemning what they called a coup.

And the third thing that happened is that Carmona, the interim president, obviously went overboard like three or four hours later he dissolved the National Assembly, which is the Venezuelan congress. He declared… he fired the Supreme Court. And that turned the tide because it was obvious that the new government would not get international recognition and that it would not survive.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Andres, this is a fairly unique event in Latin American history, isn’t it?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: It is but unfortunately it isn’t quite, because in December, remember, we had the Argentine president leaving and we had like four or five presidents within a week. Now we have three presidents in Venezuela within three days. It’s a sad scene.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But I mean when somebody comes back, when somebody comes back.

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: That is very, very unique, yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That’s what I thought. I want to go back through these different problems and different factors that you mentioned that made this happen. You explained the mistakes that you thought that Carmona made. Explain more about the international reaction. Why was that so important — especially the Latin American reaction?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: That was critical, Elizabeth, because it came very early in the morning and the Latin American presidents invoked a charter called the Democratic Charter. This was a treaty that was signed late last year, on September 11 last year, the same day as the attacks on the towers whereby Latin American countries pledged to enforce a collective defense of democracy. In simple words, that means that if one country breaks democratic rule, all the other countries will not recognize the new government.

So they did. They jumped immediately, and they declared this interim government an unconstitutional government, and said we are going to apply the new Organization of American States’ democratic charter, signed recently, because this government has to go. And that was a critical thing because among other things, it convinced those in the Venezuelan military who were sort of wondering which way to go that this interim government would not survive and they, therefore, you know, turned back and remained loyal to Chavez.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did the military leaders that were against Chavez have active troops under… combat troops under their command? Was that a factor?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: We still don’t know because, remember, Chavez… one of the things he did since he took office three years ago was he doubled the number of generals. Now there are like 250 generals in the Venezuelan army so it’s not yet clear how many of them supported the coup, how many of them supported Chavez and how many of them were in the middle sort of waiting to see who would win.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And where does this leave Hugo Chavez now, a lot stronger or not?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Let me tell you a little story. Somebody was reminding me today that in 1973 when Salvador Allende, another populist left-of-center if not leftist president was president of Chile, there was a coup attempt like in April or May and the tanks were on the street and the coup was defeated. The next day this president appointed a general who he trusted to be the new commander in chief of the armed forces. Three months later, that general, who was Augusto Pinochet toppled Salvador Allende. So this is not the end of the story. More is to come. I don’t think Chavez is out of the woods yet.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the conciliatory gestures he made today and the words, the conciliatory words that he spoke? He called for rectifying past mistakes.

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: The consensus in diplomatic circles at least the three or four ambassadors that I talked to today is that this is a tactical move. Chavez has to do it because the same democratic charter of the Organization of American States that the president applied to the coup plotters may be applied to him, because — remember — he may have broken constitutional rule as well when he allowed his troops to fire on the peaceful demonstrators on Thursday and when he pretty much took over the television stations and, in fact, you know, abolished freedom of the press.

So he’s under observation. That’s what one ambassador to the Organization of American States told me this morning. Chavez is under observation. If he takes extra-constitutional powers, if he abolishes freedom of expression, if he closes down the Congress, this ambassador said we will apply him the same rule we applied to the other one and we’ll isolate him from the Latin American and inter-American diplomatic community.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Andres Oppenheimer, thanks for being with us.