Moving to consolidate his control over a government that slipped from his hands last week, President Hugo Chavez today began rounding up military officials who helped overthrow him. At the same time, he promised the rest of his divided country a more open government.
As the president pledged to respect the rights of the arrested, state security agents kept confined a number of dissident military officers involved in the provisional government that replaced Chavez for a little more than 24 hours over the weekend. That government collapsed Saturday after a split in the military leadership that had installed it a day earlier.
Anticipating arrest, many members of the opposition went into hiding today. At least three military officers, including one who publicly called for Chavez's arrest, sought refuge in an embassy here in hopes of avoiding a sweep that Chavez aides say includes about 100 military officials and civilians.
The arrests came as Chavez, restored to the presidency Sunday after two days under military arrest, portrayed his removal as a plan hatched by 'many Machiavellian minds' and the national media, which he called on again today to halt what he views as an attempt to foment political dissension.
In his first news conference since reclaiming the presidency, Chavez acknowledged that there was an 'important segment of Venezuelans' that opposes his political agenda. The former army colonel, who staged his own failed coup a decade ago, was elected in 1998 on a strident populist message that resonated with Venezuela's impoverished majority but angered members of the middle and upper classes who had enjoyed political power in the oil-rich nation for four decades.
In his comments on the United States, which tacitly endorsed the interim government, Chavez said: 'I think they were victims of misinformation.' His remarks signaled that oil shipments from Venezuela to the United States, which amount to roughly 2 million barrels a day, would continue. Venezuela is the third-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
But Chavez also hinted at a broader conspiracy behind his ouster, saying that 'military attaches' from Brazil, Colombia and the United States arrived while the leaders of his own armed forces were demanding his resignation. Those countries have consistently expressed concern over Chavez's designs in the region, particularly over his ambiguous position regarding Colombia's Marxist guerrillas.
Chavez also delivered a conciliatory message today in an attempt to calm the country and quiet military unrest.
Chavez said he would begin a 'national round table' Tuesday to hear from 'widely diverse sectors of society,' many of which have been excluded by his heavy-handed style. He said he would name a new board of directors to run the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, whose managers began a protest in February that blossomed into demonstrations that briefly brought Chavez down.
'It was a conflict within [the company], but it was used,' Chavez said, adding that he would restructure the company so that 'this industry cannot be used this way again.' The oil industry provides the government with more than half of its revenue, and accounts for 80 percent of Venezuela's exports.
Chavez denied involvement in the violence that broke out Thursday during a protest march on the presidential palace, known as Miraflores, saying: 'I didn't give the order to kill anyone. The investigation now underway will get to the bottom of this.' At least 14 people died during those protests.
Government officials said today that the overall death toll over the past five days may have reached 35 with several hundred others injured in rioting and looting that devastated several neighborhoods. Whether Chavez had a hand in starting the violence has become the central question in determining whether his removal was a civil response to the shooting or a coup provoked by the opposition. A delegation from the Organization of American States began an investigation today.
As Chavez received congratulations from foreign leaders, a number of military officers, business leaders and civilians who helped bring down a president only to see him return two days later confronted their dizzying change of fortune.
The interim president, Pedro Carmona, was released from custody at the Fort Tiuna military base in the capital, where just a few days earlier Chavez had begun his short tenure as 'a prisoner president.' Carmona, who heads the nation's largest business group, was placed under house arrest pending an investigation into his role in Chavez's ouster, according to his attorney. Defense Minister Jose Vicente Rangel said Carmona's ministers had been set free, but it was unclear whether that was also true of the military members of the provisional government.
Members of the opposition said Hector Ramirez, a navy vice admiral who was the defense minister in the provisional government, remained under arrest. So did the army's former commanding general, Efrain Vasquez Velasco, who was instrumental in Chavez's removal and in his return.
Vice Adm. Carlos Molina said he had spent 18 hours under arrest at Venezuela's naval headquarters here. Molina, one of five officers who publicly demanded Chavez's removal in the weeks before his ouster, had been named by Carmona to head the military unit at the presidential palace.
A number of other military officers remained on the run. Air Force Col. Pedro Soto, who in February was dismissed from the service after asking Chavez to step down, said he and two other officers had sought diplomatic protection at an embassy here, which he declined to identify during a conversation via cell phone.
'The movement continues,' Soto said.
Recounting the events of the day he was deposed, Chavez said he made the decision to pull private television stations off the air during the protest 'when it was evident that they were pushing the violence, and that some, not all, were involved in the conspiracy.' The shooting broke out soon after.