Venezuela: Carmona Out, Chavez Back -- But For How Long?

13 April 2002


An attempt by ultra-conservative civilians and military officials to hijack interim President Pedro Carmona Estanga's transition government broke the political coalition backing Venezuela's new president and forced Carmona to resign April 13, less than 36 hours after his inauguration. Hugo Chavez will return to Miraflores palace to reclaim the presidency of Venezuela before sunrise April 14, but his stay in the palace may be short-lived. Following the April 11 deaths of several anti-Chavez protesters, Venezuela will become increasingly ungovernable if Chavez remains president.


Venezuela's interim leader, Pedro Carmona Estanga, resigned shortly after 10 p.m. EST April 13, after occupying the presidency less than 36 hours. Carmona also recognized the constitutional authority of Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who was sworn in as president by National Assembly President William Lara after Carmona was forced to reinstate the assembly's elected members and other public officials he fired on April 12.

supporters of President Hugo Chavez said he would return to the Miraflores presidential palace within hours. However, it is not certain that Chavez has sufficient support in the National Assembly to retain the presidency following the events of April 11, when government security forces and pro-Chavez militia gunmen fired into a crowd of unarmed anti-Chavez protesters, killing 15 and wounding 157 people.

STRATFOR sources in the assembly and the armed forces (FAN) say an informal count indicates that about 75 percent of the assembly's members oppose allowing Chavez to continue as president. The sources added that former Interior and Justice Minister Luis Miquilena, who commands a sizeable block of moderate votes inside the dominant pro-Chavez Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), will be a key powerbroker in any effort to end Chavez's presidency by legal and constitutional means.

Miquilena reportedly believes that Chavez abdicated his legal and moral legitimacy as president when he ordered government and civilian militia to shoot at unarmed protesters. STRATFOR sources said Miquilena is working to build a consensus that would ease the way to replace Chavez with someone other than Vice President Diosdado Cabello, who was appointed by Chavez rather than elected.

Carmona's short-lived interim presidency unraveled when the political coalition that negotiated his appointment collapsed due to efforts by extreme right-wing civilian and military groups to hijack his transition government, STRATFOR has learned.

The economic and political measures Carmona announced at his April 12 inauguration -- including the National Assembly's dissolution and the dismissal of the Supreme Court judges and other key government officials -- were not what had been agreed upon by the political, civic and military factions that built a center-right coalition to back Carmona and were reaching out to the moderate center-left.

The right-wing coup-within-a-coup was engineered by a group of military officials who are proteges of retired Gen. Ruben Rojas, in partnership with ultra-conservative businessmen and politicians -- some of whom belong to the extremely conservative Catholic Opus Dei organization. The Carmona government's defense minister, Rear Adm. Hector Ramirez Perez, is a longtime protege of Rojas, while Carmona's choice for foreign minister, Jose Rodriguez Iturbe, belongs to Opus Dei.

The attempt by ultra-conservative civilians and military officials to install a right-wing regime backfired badly when Carmona announced the National Assembly's dissolution. The center of the civilian-military coalition supporting Carmona's interim government collapsed immediately, while the political and strategic balance that Chavez lost April 11 during the protest violence swung back in his favor.

As Carmona´s civilian and labor support evaporated, the FAN also split into at least three distinct groups now struggling for power inside the military.

One group is led by Army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, who emerged April 11-12 as the leader of a center-right faction of career officers who oppose Chavez's attempts to politicize the FAN and shift the country away from capitalist democracy. Vasquez Velasco's group negotiated the agreement with civic and political opposition leaders that installed Carmona as a consensus interim president.

A second group consists of ultra-conservative officers in all four branches of the FAN. Some of these officers are longtime proteges of Rojas, and others -- including some Opus Dei members -- hail from the Christian Democrat Copei party, which long has been dominated by former President Rafael Caldera (who also is Rojas's father-in-law). STRATFOR's sources report this group planned to launch a coup against Chavez on Feb. 27, but aborted the scheme under strong pressure from centrist colleagues inside the FAN and from the Bush administration in Washington.

The third group consists of pro-Chavez officers -- including Gen. Raul Baduel, who commands the 42nd Parachutists Brigade based at Maracay in Aragua state. This is Chavez's former unit, and Baduel is one of his closest friends and political allies in the army, sources say.

Baduel declared himself in rebellion against the Carmona government before it was sworn in April 12, hunkering down inside his command with 2,000 elite paratroopers and a large arsenal of weapons and munitions. Division Gen. Julio Garcia Montoya, permanent secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, also declared himself in rebellion and made his opposition to the interim government known through a telephone interview with Cuban television that was then broadcast back to Venezuela.

STRATFOR sources in Fort Tiuna report that Chavez was prepared to resign officially. In fact, he was videotaped in detention at the fort resigning verbally and was negotiating his exile to Cuba in return for signing a duly notarized letter of resignation. However, when Chavez became aware of the growing split between Vasquez Velasco's centrist forces and the ultra-conservatives surrounding Carmona, he prolonged discussions while supporters throughout Caracas tried to whip up opposition to Carmona.

The balance shifted decisively back toward Chavez before 5 p.m. EST April 13, when Vasquez Velasco -- in a nationally televised address -- conditioned his continued support for Carmona to the immediate reinstatement of the National Assembly. Carmona immediately complied. However, reinstated National Assembly President Lara promptly declared Carmona illegitimate and swore in Vice President Cabello as acting president, pending Chavez's return to the presidential palace.

However, the conflict is far from over.

After the events of April 11-13, it is likely that the only way Chavez can continue in power is to dissolve the National Assembly and rule by executive decree, backed by military force. Nevertheless, elected assembly members probably would not accept dissolution on Chavez's orders, and it also is unlikely that the split in the FAN will close. If anything, the next 24 to 48 hours could see the eruption of fighting between military units that support or oppose Chavez.