Thursday, April 24, 2003

The New York Times

February 23, 2003
Venezuela's Chavez Tells World to Back Off

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned the
world to stop meddling in the affairs of his troubled South American
nation on Sunday, as police locked up a prominent strike leader on ``civil
rebellion'' charges.

The populist president accused the United States and Spain of siding with
his enemies, warned Colombia he might break off diplomatic relations, and
reprimanded the chief mediator in tortuous peace talks for stepping ``out
of line.''
``I ask all of the countries of this continent and of the world ... are
you going (to) stop this meddling?'' Chavez asked angrily, during his
state-sponsored television show 'Alo Presidente.' ``This is a sovereign

The tongue-lashing followed a recent flurry of diplomatic communiques
expressing concern over Carlos Fernandez, a strike leader and prominent
businessman who was yanked out of a Caracas steakhouse on Thursday at
gunpoint by police.

A judge placed the silver-haired executive under house arrest on Sunday to
await trial for charges of civil rebellion and criminal instigation, which
could land him up to 26 years in prison. He spearheaded a two-month
nationwide shutdown by oil workers and industry in a failed bid to force

``I've committed no crime, of any kind,'' Fernandez said defiantly from
his country home just outside Caracas.

Chavez carped that the same international worry by diplomats over
Fernandez wasn't shown when he was briefly ousted in a 48-hour coup last
year. He said some countries, including Spain and the United States,
applauded the putsch.

``It's worth remembering that the Spanish ambassador was here, in this
room, applauding the coup. So the Spanish government is going (to) keep
commenting?'' Chavez asked.
``We say the same thing to the government in Washington. Stop making
mistakes ... A spokesman comes out there saying he's worried. No! This is
a Venezuelan matter.''

Venezuela's crisis has drawn the international spotlight with leaders
afraid the world's No. 5 supplier of oil could slide into civil war as
Chavez allies and enemies face off.
Hailed by supporters as a champion of the poor, the
paratrooper-turned-president has pledged to crack down on enemies of his
self-styled ``revolution.'' Foes call him an ignorant dictator looking to
impose Cuban-style communism.

Chavez crushed an oil walkout by firing 13,000 dissident workers, and
laughed off the two-month-old strike which hurt the private sector and was
meekly abandoned in early February.
He won an arrest warrant for another strike leader, union boss Carlos
Ortega, and threatens to lock up a group of media moguls he dubs the
``Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.''

The United States, Spain and four other countries have dispatched
diplomats to the negotiating table in a bid to defuse tensions fueling the
crisis. But the talks have so far proven fruitless, and Chavez on Sunday
seemed to push away members of the six-nation group.
Chavez reserved his most severe criticism for Cesar Gaviria, who is the
chief mediator in talks to end the political deadlock. Gaviria, a former
Colombian president, is the head of the Organization of American States.
``Mr. Gaviria, this is a sovereign nation, sir. You were president of a
country. Don't step out of line,'' Chavez said.

The maverick leader, whose fiery rhetoric inflames adversaries, also took
time on Sunday to include Colombia in his tirade. The neighboring nation's
foreign minister accused Chavez last week of meeting frequently with rebel
Chavez has always denied those allegations, and on Sunday criticized the
country for providing asylum for Venezuela's brief president during the
April coup -- Pedro Carmona.
``What do they want? For us to break offrelations? That we break off
ties?'' Chavez exclaimed.
``Over there in Colombia they had a party on the day of the coup ... They
applauded Carmona and they have Carmona over there in Bogota. He lives
over there, that fugitive.''

Venezuela's internal standoff has left at least seven dead and scores
injured in street violence since December. Police are also investigating
last week's killings of three dissident soldiers and an anti-Chavez
protester, which relatives of the victims blame on political persecution.