A jubilant Hugo Chavez reclaimed Venezuela's presidency before dawn today after two days under military arrest, dramatically escaping an attempt to overthrow his government that dissolved late Saturday when military officers reversed themselves under international and popular pressure.
Flown by helicopter from an island prison, Chavez arrived at about 3 a.m. at the presidential palace, which was surrounded by throngs of supporters who had spent the previous day and night demanding his return. Nationwide demonstrations stopped today, signaling at least a pause in the unrest that has shaken the third-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
Chavez's return to power was engineered by some of the same military commanders who ousted him after anti-government protests on Thursday left at least 14 people dead. Military commanders said they had lost confidence in the provisional government that replaced Chavez after concluding that its moves to dissolve parliament and the Supreme Court and void the constitution would drive the country deeper into conflict.
Military officers forced a business leader who had assumed the interim presidency, Pedro Carmona, to step aside late Saturday and make way for Chavez's return.
The attempted ouster of Chavez, who was democratically elected, was widely condemned across Latin America, but not by the Bush administration, which disdains the maverick leftist. Today, a White House statement did not welcome his return. "The people of Venezuela have sent a clear message to President Chavez that they want both democracy and reform," the statement said. "The Chavez administration has an opportunity to respond to this message by correcting its course and governing in a fully democratic manner."
Chavez delivered a largely conciliatory speech this morning pledging not to seek retribution against his opponents. He said he would begin a broad consultation with Venezuelan society and reverse management decisions at the state oil company, a simmering issue that provided the spark for the coup attempt. But he demanded that the opposition take similar steps, calling on the media in particular to change their ways.
"Organize yourselves, members of the opposition," said Chavez, sitting behind the desk where two days earlier Carmona had decreed an end to the Chavez era. "Engage in politics that are fair, just and legal. Once again, sadly, you have demonstrated that here there are two countries -- one that is virtual, one that is real."
Opposition lawmakers said that neither Carmona nor other members of the provisional government had been arrested.
The political violence of the past week, which left at least 23 people dead and more than 100 injured, was the worst in Venezuela since Chavez, a former army colonel, launched a failed coup a decade ago. It came as threats have grown to U.S. interests in the troubled Andean region, where Chavez's ambiguous policy toward Colombia's Marxist guerrilla insurgency has angered regional leaders and the Bush administration.
A delegation from the Organization of American States arrived today to investigate the events surrounding Chavez's ouster. After Chavez was forced from office early Friday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer blamed him for violence during a march on the presidential palace and suggested that it justified the military's intervention. That position put Washington at odds with 19 Latin American leaders, who condemned the "constitutional interruption in Venezuela."
Chavez's return suggests the extent of support for him within the military and among Venezuela's 24 million citizens. His overwhelming victory in the election in 1998 smashed a lock on power by two parties that have dominated Venezuelan politics for four decades. But since taking office, his class rhetoric and attacks on opponents of his "social revolution" mobilized labor groups, business leaders, the national media and the Catholic Church against him.
"We overestimated the extent of popular resentment toward Chavez, and we also had the wrong impression about the true situation within the military," said Anibal Romero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University here.
Today, explaining the swift turn of events, people on both sides of the debate said the provisional government planted the seeds of its demise as soon as it took office. Decisions to toss out the constitution and hunt down allies of Chavez reinforced lingering fears held by many Venezuelans, including members of the military, that what had occurred was not a popular revolt but a coup by the business elite.
According to active and retired members of the military, a handful of senior officials had been planning Chavez's removal for about six months. But the events leading to Thursday's unrest started in February, when a group of managers at the state oil company began a work slowdown to protest Chavez's appointment of five political allies to its board of directors. It widened dramatically on Tuesday, when a national strike called by the country's largest labor and business groups began in support of the managers' protest.
On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched on the presidential palace in support of the strike that became a broad call for Chavez to step down. Late that afternoon, Chavez pulled private television stations opposed to his government from the air, and shooting broke out on the streets.
In the following hours, a stream of high-ranking military officials withdrew their support for the government. Military officials said Chavez resigned early Friday morning and asked to be allowed to leave for Cuba. Today, Chavez said he never resigned and "never doubted that we would be back. But I didn't think it would be this soon."
The military endorsed Carmona, the head of a business group that had participated in the national strike, as interim president. He was sworn in Friday afternoon. But in style and substance, the new government quickly alienated civil groups and key elements of the armed forces, which are proud of a history of support for Venezuelan democracy.
Issuing a series of decrees, Carmona dissolved the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the constitution that had been passed in 1999 by a wide majority of voters. The new president said elections would be held within a year, but he did not set a date.
The decrees were issued as cheers rang out from a room full of Chavez opponents, but the new government did not include a single member of the labor movement that had been instrumental in bringing it to power. Nor did it include members of leftist political parties opposed to Chavez.
"The way the provisional government abandoned the constitution produced a very strong reaction -- it was a big mistake," said Felipe Mujica, a congressman and leader of the Movement Toward Socialism, whose party broke with Chavez but was left out of the new government. "That, and the way they were pursuing his political allies, arresting them, created the impression that this was not the right way."
By noon Saturday, key military leaders were growing concerned about the direction of the new government, according to retired military officials familiar with the events. Conservative senior commanders were angry over Carmona's disregard for the constitution, and there were festering personal grudges as well.
Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, the head of the army who played a pivotal role in Chavez's removal, was passed over as defense minister in the new government. That job went to Hector Ramirez, the navy vice admiral who Chavez opponents said had been involved in anti-government plotting for six months.
"The army would never accept a navy officer in that job," said Mario Ivan Carratu, a retired vice admiral. "It has always been that way."
Early Saturday afternoon, Vasquez warned Carmona in a televised statement that he would withdraw his support for the government unless the National Assembly was restored. The National Guard joined the call, and Carmona quickly complied.
By then, pro-Chavez forces at a military base in Maracay, about 50 miles west of here, had started an insurrection aimed at restoring Chavez to power. Suddenly, the leaders of the armed forces were faced with a bloody confrontation to defend a government in which they had lost faith, according to lawmakers and retired military officials familiar with the events. Military officers sought Carmona's resignation later that evening. Chavez's vice president, Diosdado Cabello, was sworn in and Chavez was released from custody a few hours later.
"When the military started putting conditions on the new government, Carmona was finished," Carratu said. "He became a government of one."
Chavez signaled that, while "urgent decisions" had to be made to solidify his government, he would not seek revenge.
"I do not come with hate or rancor in my heart," Chavez said. "But we must make decisions and adjust things."