Dissidents in Venezuela's military say another coup is likely

Four junior officers say that they are planning to overthrow President Hugo Chávez by July 5.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The problems for Venezuela's embattled President Hugo Chávez just keep getting worse.

Chastened by a coup in April in which he was ousted from power for 48 hours, Mr. Chávez vowed to improve relations with groups that had initiated his overthrow, including the military, business leaders, and much of the public.

But Chávez's opponents are as determined as ever to see him removed from office.

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On Saturday, tens of thousands took to the streets of Caracas and continued calls for his resignation. The protests were peaceful, in contrast to the April 11 march preceding the coup, in which 18 people were killed the first day. Dozens more were killed and hundreds more were injured in the following days.

Now Chávez is facing another potential showdown. A second coup, possibly much bloodier than the first, is likely between now and July 5, according to experts here and military officers.

"We are in an irreversible situation," says political analyst Alberto Garrido, and author of a number of books on Chávez's political movement. "There is no buffer between the two sides."

E-mails circulated last week saying that the overthrow of Chávez was likely. And 10 masked figures claiming to be military officers appeared on television condemning the government's behavior. Chávez dismissed the rumors as opposition-led propaganda.

Four junior officers who say they are part of a fresh coup plot agreed to talk with the Monitor on condition of anonymity. Three wore masks and camouflage fatigues, while the fourth – a national guard lieutenant – agreed to appear with his face uncovered.

"We want to put a stop to an unsustainable situation," says an Army captain. "If nothing changes, we're heading for civil war."

Claiming to represent as much as 70 percent of the armed forces, the officers cited specifically military grievances, as well as their rejection of what they call the government's "communist tendencies." They produced a payslip showing that an ordinary member of the national guard earns as little as $150 per month after deductions.

The armed forces, they claim, are being deliberately starved of resources while money is diverted to bolster so-called "Bolivarian circles." These civilian groups are seen by the Venezuelan opposition as partly a cover for the creation of militias.

Sources close to pro-Chávez hardliners confirm that automatic weapons have been distributed to civilian groups and that "some hotheads" would use them in the event of a coup. The military dissidents have threatened to kill any who represent a threat to lives or property.

"We are prepared for anything," the Army captain says. He warned of a "river of blood" if there were resistance by pro-Chávez forces, adding that there were "fanatical military units too" that were willing to die for the government.

Chávez still has some support among the public. Thousands of pro-Chávez supporters gathered in cities around Caracas, waving placards and donning red berets, the signature of the former paratrooper-cum-president.

July 5 is seen as a key date because that is the when the annual round of military promotions is announced. After that, many dissident officers will have been removed from their posts and several hundred could be expelled from the armed forces.

If successful, the dissident officers said, the leaders of their movement planned to install a seven to nine-member military-civilian junta and call elections as soon as possible.

Even if the coup is unsuccessful, Chávez may also face pressure of impeachment on human rights violations and for financial irregularities. Opponents say that he authorized the police to fire on civilians during the April coup, and that his administration is responsible for $2.3 billion in missing oil revenue.

Chávez, a former army lieutenant-colonel, staged a failed coup himself in 1992, but was democratically elected in 1998. Since taking power he has reformed the Constitution to increase his hold on power and to bring more of the economy, which is now foundering, under the control of the state.

Chávez has earned the disapproval of the United States, which receives up to 15 percent of its oil from Venezuela. Suspicious of his links with guerrillas in neighboring Colombia and Fidel Castro's Cuba, Washington all but welcomed the April coup.

• Material from wire services was used in this report.

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