Venezuela: Military Officers Call for President to Step Down

Article excerpt

During the past two weeks, three military officers have publicly called on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to resign. Whether they represent significant discontent in the armed forces or a personal alliance with the increasingly vocal upper-class opposition to Chavez is unclear. Few analysts, however, see any likelihood of a military takeover.

At a forum on freedom of expression Feb. 7, Air Force Col. Pedro Soto called for Chavez's resignation, accusing the president of using the armed forces for political ends. He claimed his opinion was shared by most military officers. The 1999 Constitution gave the military the right to vote and removed limits on expressing political opinions.

The government accused Soto of aiding news-media owners at the press forum to stage a "show" to coincide with an Organization of American States (OAS) inspection of press freedoms in Venezuela.

Soto became an instant hero for Chavez opponents who have had trouble finding a leader who offers any viable challenge to the president. During an anti-Chavez protest the following day, police reportedly tried to detain Soto but were stopped by the crowd.

"We are here to tell the president that freedom of expression is one of the most important things...and no one is going to take it away from us," Soto said at the rally. "The president cannot think we elected him to be the owner of Venezuela."

During the demonstration, a second dissident, National Guard Capt. Pedro Flores, joined Soto. He accused the president of endangering the country's democratic system through corruption and through attacks on the Catholic Church, the media, and "the rule of law."

Armed forces chief Gen. Lucas Rincon said Soto was frustrated because he had been bypassed for promotion to general. Soto has acknowledged he was denied a promotion, but attributed it to his close links with Chavez's enemy, ex- President Carlos Andres Perez (1974-1979, 1989-1993). Perez has called for Chavez's ouster. Those links could also help explain Soto's sudden decision to wage a public campaign against Chavez.

Vice President Diosdado Cabello said Soto and Flores, plus another unnamed officer, had met with a television station director before Soto demanded the president's resignation. Cabello noted the extensive coverage of Soto as he demanded Chavez's resignation, was met by police, and then led thousands of protesters in the streets.

The government said Soto's freedom to stage his protest shows that freedom of expression exists fully in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, OAS press-freedom inspector Santiago Canton said earlier harassment of reporters by Chavez supporters endangered press freedoms, but he also said Chavez's use of a law requiring broadcasters to run his speeches was tolerable as long as it was "reasonable."

Chavez says media behind officers

Chavez said on Feb. 9 that the government knew opposition media and politicians were planning to have a military officer criticize the government on national television. "Only we didn't know who it would be," Chavez told Chilean television.

Chavez accused the media of "spreading a false picture" of growing discontent in Venezuela. "There is no serious opposition, they do not have leadership, they do not have an alternative project," the president said.

The armed forces command demanded that Soto and Flores turn themselves in by Feb. 11 to face unspecified "consequences."

OAS secretary-general Cesar Gaviria called on the two to obey. "President Hugo Chavez was elected democratically, and thus it is unacceptable for an officer of the armed forces to seek to disregard the rule of law," said Gaviria in Bogota.

On Feb. 11, the two officers turned themselves in at their respective bases. After several hours of questioning, they were released. Col. Hidalgo Valero, a lawyer for the officers, said Soto "has committed no crime. …