Latin America snubs Venezuela's new leader

Latin American leaders today reacted furiously at the instalment of Pedro Carmona as Venezuela’s interim leader following a huge military revolt, calling the new government illegitimate.

Latin American leaders today reacted furiously at the instalment of Pedro Carmona as Venezuela’s interim leader following a huge military revolt, calling the new government illegitimate.

After he was sworn in yesterday, Carmona promised new presidential elections within a year and moved quickly to sweep away what Chavez had done in his three tumultuous years in office.

Carmona dissolved the Chavez-controlled Congress, Supreme Court, attorney general’s and comptroller’s offices, and declared a 1999 constitution sponsored by Chavez null and void.

‘‘We can achieve the governability required to improve Venezuela’s image,’’ said Carmona, a long-time business leader. ‘‘The strongman era has ended.’’

But Carmona’s decrees - and even his instalment - drew immediate criticism.

"This is an illegitimate measure by an illegitimate government,’’ said legislator Tania D’Amelio, a member of Chavez’s party. She said others from her party planned to go to Congress on Monday to hold session, despite Carmona’s proclamations.

Mexican President Vicente Fox said his country would not recognise Venezuela’s new government until new elections were held, and the leaders of Argentina and Paraguay called the new government illegitimate.

Leaders of the 19-nation Rio Group of Latin American countries condemned ‘‘the interruption of constitutional order’’ in Venezuela.

There was no immediate response from Carmona or the military high command, which forced Chavez to resign overnight after a 150,000-strong opposition demonstration demanding the president’s ouster Thursday ended in bloodshed.

Chavez had ordered National Guard troops and civilian gunmen, including rooftop snipers, to fire on the marchers, military officers said. At least 14 people were killed and 240 wounded.

The military rejected Chavez’s request for exile in Cuba, jailed him at an army base in Caracas pending charges related to Thursday’s violence, and began an intensive search for his former Cabinet and collaborators.

Caracas, the capital that lies just off the Caribbean coast, was otherwise mostly quiet yesterday.

The United States, which had seen its third-largest source of oil threatened amid union unrest against the Chavez government, said Chavez was responsible for his demise because of the violent attempts to put down the demonstration.

But attorney general Isaias Rodriguez, a Chavez ally, said the ousted president had not resigned. He argued that Chavez was still president because no resignation had been submitted or accepted by Congress, as the constitution required.

The ousted president’s daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, told Cuban television in a telephone interview that he had not resigned.

She said Chavez told her in a phone call to tell ‘‘the whole world ... that I am an imprisoned president and at no moment did I resign’’.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, warned in a statement from New York that human rights and the rule of law were threatened in Venezuela.

Security forces conducted house to house searches yesterday for members of ‘‘Bolivarian Circles’’ - Chavez-backed neighbourhood groups styled after Cuba’s Revolutionary Block Committees that opponents say were armed.

They also raided storehouses and government offices, and seized dozens of weapons. Security forces also arrested two men accused of shooting at protesters.

Miguel Dao, head of Venezuela’s security police, said his forces were looking for 1,500 rifles missing from a police station that allegedly were given to Chavez supporters.

Police arrested at least three politicians allied with Chavez, including Tarek William Saab, a congressman. Saab’s wife, Francis Fernino, said 100 people had gathered outside the couple’s home before he was arrested.

‘‘These people outside were from the upper classes, and they were acting like the worst criminals in the slums,’’ Fernino told The Associated Press news agency.

Police captured former Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin at a hotel. Chacin, who was Chavez’s liaison with Colombian rebels, was pummelled by a mob as he was led away.

Four other Chavez-allied politicians were believed to have sought refuge in the Cuban embassy, which was besieged by 500 protesters who wrecked cars outside the compound and pelted it with eggs, demanding that the four be handed over.

Cuba’s government condemned the harassment and called on the United Nations to investigate the overthrow of Chavez, a close friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Resentment simmered in a corner of a downtown plaza in Caracas where Chavez supporters had frequently handed out flyers supporting his policies and railed against his critics.

‘‘The armed forces should have backed him in such a difficult situation,’’ said Yoel Villegas, a 31-year-old waiter as he stopped by the plaza. ‘‘That is their duty.’’

Popular resentment toward Chavez, a former paratrooper who in 1992 led a botched coup attempt and who was elected in 1998 on an anti-poverty platform, had been building for months. His term was to end in 2006.

Six weeks ago, managers at the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, which traditionally enjoys much autonomy, began protesting at a reshuffle of the company board by Chavez. The protests eventually triggered this week’s general strike and Thursday’s march, and they severely disrupted exports from the world’s number four oil producer.

Carmona, the 60-year-old head of Venezuela’s largest business chamber, had played a key role in this week’s general strike. After becoming interim president, he suspended 48 laws decreed by Chavez that increased the state’s role in the economy.

He also appointed a 35-member advisory council to oversee the transition, and named an interim Cabinet of politicians previously allied with the opposition.

Labour leaders warned Carmona that he would have to address pressing issues such as billions of dollars in wages and pensions owed to public workers.

Inspired by Chavez’s ousting, workers at Petroleos de Venezuela moved quickly to bring production and exports of crude oil and refined products back to full capacity. Monopoly executive Horacio Medina estimated that operations will be normal within a week.

Chavez had alienated Washington with his close ties to Castro, visits to Iraq, Iran and Libya, criticising US bombings in Afghanistan, opposing free trade and maintaining alleged links to leftist Colombian rebels.

He exasperated Venezuelans by implementing economic policies by decree, repeatedly attacking ‘‘oligarchs’’ opposed to his rule, and accusing the media and Roman Catholic Church leaders of conspiring to overthrow him.

The armed forces - with traditionally strong ties to the US military - resented Chavez’s distancing of Venezuela from Washington, including a decision to suspend Venezuela’s participation in regional military exercises.

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