Thursday, April 24, 2003

The New York Times

February 26, 2003
Explosions Rip Diplomatic Offices in Caracas

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 25 - Powerful explosions outside two diplomatic
offices shattered windows and nerves early today, leaving four people
wounded and many others uncertain about the prospects for a peaceful
solution to the political crisis here.

One blast ripped the glass and steel facade of the Colombian Consulate
downtown, twisting a thick steel entry gate and ruining two of the
building's four floors. A second blast, outside the foreign aid office of
the Spanish Embassy in a residential area, knocked a gate off its hinges
and punched a hole through a wall. In both cases, people were wounded by
flying glass, authorities said.

The explosions, which the police said were extraordinarily large and which
neighbors said felt like earthquakes, came two days after President Hugo
Chávez publicly berated Spain and Colombia for interfering in Venezuela's
internal affairs. Mr. Chávez, who has outlasted an attempted coup and an
opposition strike, had been criticized for the arrest of an opposition
leader as well as for not assisting Colombia in its fight against leftist

The government denied any involvement in the blasts and ordered tighter
security for foreign missions and the diplomatic corps. The deputy foreign
minister, Arévalo Méndez, said the bombs were the work of a "sick and
confused mind that had nothing to do" with any criticisms Mr. Chávez might
have voiced against other nations.

"We repudiate this act of terrorism," Vice President José Vicente Rangel
said at an afternoon news conference. "The government rejects any
terrorist act, whatever it is, wherever it is, whoever the author. We
reject any form of terrorism, whether it is from the state or from

Diplomats from Colombia and Spain did not blame the government but did
urge thorough investigations, as did the United States.
The blasts, which occurred around 2:30 a.m. local time, also came one day
before the resumption of talks between the government and the opposition,
which only last week had agreed to tone down their accusations and reject
violence. But the arrest last week of Carlos Fernández, a business leader
who spearheaded the strike, had already increased skepticism over Mr.
Chávez's commitment to a peaceful resolution. "This defines a new stage in
the political situation in Venezuela, one in which there is greater chaos
and violence and a president who is becoming more entrenched," said
Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue
in Washington. "It makes it very hard to see negotiations, given this

It is just as difficult to know who is responsible for the bombs. Leaflets
were found at the sites of both explosions, signed by an obscure group,
the Bolivarian Liberation Force, and the Simón Bolívar Coordinator, Urban
Militia. Juan Contreras, director of the Simón Bolívar Coordinator, told a
local newspaper that his group was a cultural association and said whoever
used its name was fighting "a dirty war."

Only two days ago, during his weekly television broadcast, Mr. Chávez had
lashed out at his critics, telling them to respect Venezuela's
sovereignty. He said some of the nations that were faulting him for
arresting the strike leader had supported the coup that failed to oust him
last April.
"Where do Spain and Colombia want this to get to?" he said during the
broadcast. "To break relations?"

A diplomat who is in close contact with the government and the opposition
said the bombs were out of character for Venezuela, where previous
explosions have been limited to grenades or pipe bombs left outside
television stations.

The jangle of thousands of shards of glass being swept away echoed through
the street outside the Colombian Consulate, where the entry gate was
twisted. The concussion from the blast smashed countless windows inside an
office building across the street, where dazed residents slowly picked
their way through small rooms.

"The strike had already paralyzed the country," said Alberto Buroz, the
president of an environmental engineering firm whose offices were the most
damaged in the building. "Now with the few clients we have left, how can
we attend to them? We have crossed the line. I don't know. I'd like to
understand what will be the end of this story. But that has not been
written yet."

Outside, Marta Lucía Varón stood by a banner held aloft by a group of her
countrymen from Colombia. They had come to the street in solidarity, she
said, as soon as they heard the news.

"This violence was created by the Chávez government," she said, despite
protests from several Chávez supporters near her. "We fled violence in
Colombia and chose Venezuela to make a living. And now we find this?"