- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

A senior military officer fired for his dissent said Venezuela was on the verge of ousting President Hugo Chavez as a general strike and halt in oil production brought the country to a standstill yesterday.

"The people of Venezuela are very discontented. They are ready to [remove Mr. Chavez from office] at the present time," said Col. Pedro Soto, the first senior military officer to demand the resignation of Mr. Chavez.

The former air force colonel accused the Chavez government of trying to create a totalitarian society by suppressing dissent through "Bolivarian Circles," neighborhood-watch groups enforcing political conformity with violence. One attacked Col. Soto shortly after he was fired.

"When [Cuban President] Fidel Castro came down from the Sierra Maestre, he had an army that could keep him in power," Col. Soto said in an interview with The Washington Times. "Chavez won through the vote, but now he is trying to create the army that will keep him in power."

Discontent with Mr. Chavez whom Mr. Soto called a "Castro protege" was widespread in Venezuela yesterday. One of the world's largest oil complexes came to a halt and operations at the El Palito refinery was closed until at least today. Venezuela's most powerful labor union called the strike to protest last week's naming of a new board of directors, filled with Chavez loyalists.

In downtown Caracas, the capital, pro-Chavez demonstrators clashed with anti-Chavez protesters.

Anti-Chavez sentiment has been building in Venezuela for months. Although the former paratrooper and failed coup leader was elected with a popular mandate, he has clashed repeatedly with the Catholic church, the media, organized labor and the military in recent months. All the while, he kept up his pro-Castro and anti-U.S. rhetoric.

The State Department and the CIA have been voicing increasing concern about the direction Mr. Chavez is taking his country.

"All the pro-democracy groups in Venezuela are united in understanding that Chavez has been acting to establish a pro-Cuba, pro-Iraqi dictatorship," said Constantine Menges, Latin America adviser to President Reagan, now at the Hudson Institute. "It has taken them awhile, but they understand this is the time for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela."

Col. Soto said 80 percent of the Venezuelan people and 90 percent of the military would like to see Mr. Chavez go. Recent polls put Mr. Chavez's support at about 30 percent. While Col. Soto does not predict a coup outright, he said the current government could be replaced with a provisional council to restore democracy.

Asked if he might be willing to lead such a group, he rejected the idea. "If I get the chance, I would like to return to the air force," he said.

On Feb. 7, Col. Soto, 49, made a public demand for Mr. Chavez to step down. He was joined by Capt. Pedro Flores. Soon after, Vice Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo became the third officer to demand Mr. Chavez's resignation. Several days later, when the police tried to arrest Col. Soto, a large crowd of supporters forced the police to back down. On Feb. 21, Col. Soto, who had spent 27 years in the Venezuelan military, was discharged from service.

Venezuelan military leadership backed the government and said the three were speaking only for themselves. Mr. Chavez branded Col. Soto "a traitor."

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