Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-VENEZUELA: Chavez Celebrates Anniversary of Uprising

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Feb 4 1999 (IPS) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez celebrated Thursday the seventh anniversary of a military uprising he led, the failure of which paved the way for his democratic political triumph, which culminated in his inauguration Tuesday.

Chavez said the commemoration of the first of the two bloody attempted coups staged in 1992 did not aim to “glorify armed rebellion,” and he apologised for the “pain” caused. But he reinstated, with honours, the batallions suspended at that time, treated the participants in the uprising as heroes, and vindicated the legitimacy of their action.

In the most defiant of the improvised speeches he delivered this week, Chavez also announced the reincorporation of participants in the coup who had been forced into retirement.

This week has been a historic one for Venezuela, with the traditional parties pushed out of power by an alliance of leftists and former coup-leaders, who promise to politically overhaul the country, with retired lieutenant-colonel Chavez at their head as the country’s ninth democratically-elected president.

Chavez postponed the military procession which traditionally follows the presidential swearing-in ceremony in order to make it coincide with the anniversary of the coup, and transform it into a proclamation that a past defeat had been turned into a victory.

As in all of the public events in which Chavez has taken part since his sweeping victory in December, when he was elected with 56 percent of the vote, a devoted mass of followers broke out in cheers when he turned toward the civilian and military figures present and said “you know deep down in your hearts that someone had to do it.”

Former president and senator in the newly convened Congress Carlos Andres Perez, against whom Chavez staged his uprising in 1992, admitted Thursday his “anguish over the tremendous absolutist tendency” he observed in the new president. But at the same time, he welcomed Chavez’ aim to regenerate the leadership of the country.

“There is no way back,” repeated Chavez, 44, to the cheers of the crowd, most of whom represented the 80 percent of the 23 million inhabitants of this oil-rich country who live in poverty.

The new president told the public authorities present and the absent opposition that it was not the time for “pettifogging,” when “the people are dying of hunger and crying out against” their calamitous situation.

“More than a president, I am a soldier who thanks to the people is back,” said Chavez, who spent 26 months in prison until his predecessor, Rafael Caldera, pardoned him on no other condition than that he retire – the start of a journey that on Tuesday made him Venezuela’s youngest president ever.

The impassive military stance maintained by the top brass during the president’s charged speech and the ceremonies vindicating the first armed uprising in Venezuela after a period of 30 years made it difficult to gauge their reaction to Chavez’ vindication of the revolts.

Chavez himself hinted that the fact that he was now the ultimate commander-in-chief of the armed forces according to the constitution rubbed against part of the military brass, still dominated by the officers who remained loyal to the government and squashed the Feb. 4 and Nov. 7, 1992 uprisings.

Chavez exalted the procession as “the first of a new historic period” in the armed forces, and added that it was designed to represent “once and for all the reunification of the country’s serving members of the military.” By calling, once more, for unity, he made it clear that such unity did not exist.

Both those close to Chavez and his opponents agree that the sixth officer to reach the presidency in Venezuela and the first to do so since the restoration of democracy in 1958 has acted intelligently in the military sphere so far.

They point out that he named highly respected officers as the heads of the armed forces, while designating General Raul Salazar, popular in every sector of the armed forces, as defence minister. Salazar has become one of the key members of the new cabinet.

The opposition parties refused to attend the ceremony. Their spokespersons argued at a bicameral session of Congress Wednesday evening that Feb 4 was not a happy date for democracy in Venezuela.

But Chavez’ past fellow coup-plotters, today ministers and other senior government officials, were present in the first row, along with the president of the Congress, retired colonel Luis Davila, the leader of the president’s Fifth Republic Movement which is the second strongest party in the new legislature.

Chavez said Thursday that the batallions that had been reinstated would be assigned to tasks such as building roads and other infrastructure projects, part of his plan to make the armed forces “spearheads for social development,” without which “there can be no defence.”

The government’s so-called “political voice,” Foreign Minister and one-time leftist candidate Jose Vicente Rangel, describes the new administration as “civil-military,” while Chavez stresses his aim of leading a peaceful democratic revolution.

Chavez said Thursday that his uprising was “a commitment to history” by progressive military officers, who had been conspiring since 1982 and decided to intervene after the bloody protests of February 1989 that were repressed by the armed forces, and which inaugurated Perez’ agitated second term in office.

Perez responded that the uprising was nothing more than a rebellion with scarce support, plotted by those in the political and economic establishment who were opposed to changes in the country. The former president was forced out of office early due to a legally weak corruption case.

But Senator Perez, 74, in whose past charisma and energy analysts detect the only local precedent for the Chavez phenomenon, insisted that the new president should be supported in his attempts to change “the rotten and paralysed democracy,” while his authoritarian tendencies should be controlled.

Chavez dismissed his opponents’ criticism that the decree he lost no time in issuing, four hours after swearing in as president, to hold a referendum on a proposed Constituent Assembly to overhaul Venezuela’s political system was not entirely legal.

“Venezuela’s problem is not legal, it is political,” said the new president. He called on each sector to “assume your share of responsibility” in rebuilding the country, which he stressed that he had taken over with a ruined economy, an impoverished society, and an exhausted political system.

Spokespersons for the Proyecto Venezuela party said “the procession made it clear that we have a commander-president.” The presidential candidate of the new party, who came in second in the December elections, also offered radical changes, but without a break with the party-dominated system installed in 1958.

According to a Proyecto Venezuela spokesman, the country’s problems cannot be combatted with “anthems, marches or slogans, nor by putting a boot on the neck of anyone opposed to the government.”

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