Thursday, April 24, 2003

General Strike Leader Arrested in Venezuela
2 Others Sought as Chavez Targets Opponents
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 21, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia, Feb. 20 -- Venezuela's secret police have arrested a key
opposition leader and are searching for two others in an apparent crackdown by
President Hugo Chavez against leaders of a recent general strike designed to
force him from office.

Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela's largest business federation, was arrested
late Wednesday by about eight government agents outside an upscale restaurant in
eastern Caracas. Fernandez was taken to the headquarters of Venezuela's secret
police agency, the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services.
Opposition leaders say he is being held on charges of treason, "civil rebellion"
and illegal assembly.

Government authorities are now searching for Carlos Ortega, the head of
Venezuela's largest labor federation, who with Fernandez was prominent in the
two-month strike that ended this month. Ortega called Fernandez's arrest a
"terrorist act" and said he would not turn himself in.

Government officials said a third arrest warrant had been issued for Juan
Fernandez, the former financial planning director at the state oil company,
Petroleos de Venezuela, who led the strike at the company. He was fired by
Chavez, along with about 13,000 other employees.

The new action appears to be part of a calculated retaliation by Chavez against
the opposition movement just as the oil-rich country is showing signs of
recovering from the crippling general strike. It also has complicated
negotiations to end a political crisis that has shaken Venezuela for more than a
year and raised the specter of fresh violence.
"These people should have been jailed a long time ago," Chavez said today at a
ceremony at the Foreign Ministry.

Authorities this week discovered the bodies of three dissident Venezuelan army
soldiers and an opposition activist in a killing characterized by international
human rights groups as politically motivated.
The arrest of Carlos Fernandez came a day after government and opposition
negotiators agreed to an eight-point declaration renouncing violence and
inflammatory rhetoric as they seek a deal on new elections. The document was the
first accord to emerge in three months of talks mediated by Cesar Gaviria,
secretary general of the Organization of American States, who called on the
government today to ensure that Fernandez receives an "independent, impartial"

Thousands of Chavez opponents demonstrated today in response to Fernandez's
arrest, many in front of the headquarters of Petroleos de Venezuela, where
thousands of employees continue their walkout.

Chavez, a populist firebrand elected in 1998 on a pledge to help Venezuela's
poor, survived a military-led coup last April that began with a strike in the
oil sector. But an opposition movement made up of labor and business groups,
leftist political parties, and middle- and upper-class civilians continued the
effort to drive him from office.

Opposition leaders called a general strike on Dec. 2 to force Chavez to resign
or move up presidential elections, scheduled for 2006, to this year. Chavez
weathered the strike by creating a system that maintained food and gasoline
supplies, but depleted the public treasury. The financially damaged private
sector lifted the protest on Feb. 3.

Although workers at the state oil company remain on strike, the government says
production has returned to more than half its pre-strike level of 3 million
barrels a day. The company accounts for half the government's revenue and 15
percent of U.S. oil imports.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, said
Fernandez's arrest left him "extremely concerned by these retaliatory
operations." Opposition members said at least one of the charges against
Fernandez, civil rebellion, does not even appear in the criminal code.
"The risk here is that the government has decided to criminalize political
expression and the actions of the opposition," he said.

The OAS talks are scheduled to resume Wednesday, giving both sides time to plan
their next steps. Rafael Alfonzo, an opposition negotiator who represents
Fedecamaras, the business federation that Fernandez heads, said, "Obviously, we
must do something about this."

"Some [opposition] people complained when we signed the [nonviolence] agreement,
but we believed in it," Alfonzo said. "Now we have this demonstration on the
government's part that shows clearly that we do not have a democracy and