- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Tensions are again rising and residents are stocking up on food in fear or hope of a second coup against President Hugo Chavez, who was briefly ousted April 11, only to be returned to power by supporters two days later.

"Let him go away, however it happens, just as long as nobody dies," said Caracas bartender Luis Aguilar.

Such opinions are heard with increasing frequency, with the calm that followed April's short-lived coup having given way to weekly demonstrations against the leftist president and renewed demands that he leave office.

Citing fears of more upheaval, Venezuela yesterday postponed a summit of 15 leaders from the developing world that had been scheduled for next month.

On Thursday, thousands of civilians and retired military officials attempted to march on the presidential palace to demand that Mr. Chavez stop politicizing military promotions.

A counterdemonstration of Chavez loyalists blocked the marchers from reaching the palace.

Earlier this month, a group of hooded, uniformed men saying they were active military officers released a video in which they vowed to fight, if necessary, against armed supporters of Mr. Chavez.

The same business-labor coalition that led the demonstrations that triggered Mr. Chavez's ouster by military officers appears to be rebuilding.

The Federation of Chambers of Commerce is threatening a tax boycott, and the principal union, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, is considering calling another nationwide strike.

This week, the Caracas evenings were again filled with the noise of residents beating pots and pans, an eerie reminder of the days preceding April 11.

Since April, the sources of discontent that preceded the April coup have, if anything, intensified.

The economy, which shrank 4.2 percent during the first four months of the year, continues slumping, and foreign investors continue to flee.

Some estimates put unemployment as high as 24 percent. And so far this year, the bolivar has lost a fifth of its value against the dollar.

"Everything's shut down, on strike, unemployed; industries are shutting down every day," said Rafael Zamora, a telephone-company manager.

Despite reshuffling his Cabinet and offering to rewrite a series of laws passed last year, Mr. Chavez is not allaying opponents' fears that he will transform Venezuela into another Cuba.

Mr. Chavez is a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and Venezuela supplies the communist island with oil at deeply discounted prices.

Mr. Chavez has not relented in his backing for his "Bolivarian Circles," which he says are social self-help organizations, but which opponents call armed militias.

The circles have been one of several causes of discontent among the armed forces, who consider them a parallel army. Many believe that in case of another coup, the circles would rise up and ignite a civil war.

The government has revealed concern of vulnerability in various ways.

It recently acknowledged that it had installed anti-aircraft batteries near the presidential palace, a move it called routine.

Berenice Gomez, who covers the military for the newspaper Ultimas Noticias, said that an effort to remove Mr. Chavez by referendum or constitutional amendment may have supplanted support for a second coup.

"The constitutional route [to removing Chavez] is getting nearer and nearer," she said.

Government opponents have initiated various measures to try to cut short Mr. Chavez's term, which ends in 2006. These include a constitutional amendment, a political trial and a national referendum, which could be held in August 2003.


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