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The Washington Post
Violence Stalks Peace Efforts in Venezuela

Wednesday, November 13, 2002; 2:31 PM

By Pascal Fletcher

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his foes wrangle over possible elections, violence is flaring on the streets and threatening to derail efforts to end the political war rocking the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Tensions remained high in Caracas on Wednesday after riot police and troops battled for the second time in just over a week on Tuesday with fanatical supporters of the left-wing president who were attacking members of the opposition.

In confused exchanges of gunfire, shotgun pellets, tear gas, stones and bottles, one person was killed and at least 20 wounded as the streets of this bustling South American capital turned into a smoke-shrouded battleground.

Troops and angry Chavez supporters faced off in the capital on Wednesday but no new clashes were immediately reported.

About 20 people were injured in politically motivated violence last week.

The fighting provided a dramatic backdrop for peace talks aimed at ending the bitter political feud between former paratrooper Chavez and opponents who reject his self-proclaimed "revolution" in Venezuela. Peace talks began on Friday and continued on Wednesday.

Seven months after the populist president survived a brief coup by rebel military officers, many wonder if the oil-rich nation may be heading for a replay of the chaotic April events in which more than 60 people were killed in street violence.

"We can't allow a repeat of April," Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria said late on Tuesday in an appeal to government and opposition negotiators taking part in the peace talks.


Referring to Tuesday's mayhem, Gaviria said, "We must not recreate at the negotiating table what is happening in the streets."

Despite Gaviria's stance, many observers doubt the peace talks can succeed.

"There is no way this process can avoid ending in violence on the streets because the points of agreement between government and opposition are practically nil," Luis Vicente Leon of pollsters Datanalisis told Reuters.

Late on Tuesday, the government berated the opposition for "joining coup plotters" -- a reference to rebel military officers in the anti-Chavez coalition -- while the opposition accused the government of trying to sabotage the peace talks with "acts of terrorism."

The disparate but determined opposition coalition of politicians, labor and business chiefs and military dissidents is pressing Chavez to accept an immediate national referendum on his rule. Chavez was democratically elected in 1998.

But the outspoken Venezuelan leader, who rejects charges by his foes that he is trying to install Cuban-style communism in Venezuela, refuses. He says his opponents must wait until August 2003 -- halfway through his current term -- when the constitution allows for a binding referendum on his rule.

Many analysts blame Chavez for a climate of violence and impunity in Venezuela. They say his revolutionary rhetoric and repeated verbal attacks against his political foes over the last year are stoking a class war in a country where massive oil wealth contrasts sharply with high levels of poverty.

Despite the political violence, few arrests have been reported and the government seems to be doing little to rein in its supporters.

Ironically, Chavez complains of judicial "impunity," referring to a Supreme Court ruling in August that said the alleged military ringleaders of the April presidential coup should not be tried for rebellion.

The same rebel generals and admirals, many of whom have been ordered into retirement by Chavez but still proudly wear their uniforms, are leading a three-week-old public protest against him in a Caracas square, cheered by civilian backers.

© 2002 Reuters