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Restored Venezuelan President Calls for National Dialogue - 2002-04-16


In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is speaking of national unity and reaching out to his opponents. He allowed short-lived interim president Pedro Carmona to return to his home under house arrest, pending an investigation of the coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chavez. The rapid return of Hugo Chavez to power caught many of his opponents off guard. They had only begun to celebrate his removal on Saturday when Chavez supporters poured out of the hillside shanty towns to demand his return. Then military units and some officers rose up to demand that the interim government abandon power.

One bank president had purchased a full-page newspaper ad for Sunday's papers celebrating the fall of Mr. Chavez. He reportedly tried to recall it, but was too late. Now, he and others from the business sector who backed Mr. Carmona are faced with the prospect of dealing with a Chavez government again.

Many people from the business sector are responding cautiously, but favorably to President Chavez's call for national dialogue. But one of Venezuela's top business leaders, Gustavo Cisneros, president of the Cisneros Group communications company, warns that the dialogue must be real.

Speaking on Venezuelan television, Mr. Cisneros called for the president to back his words with a real effort to listen to opponents and their complaints. He said Mr. Chavez had created distrust in the past by often saying one thing in the morning and another in the afternoon.

Mr. Cisneros said he believes most people in the business sector, and in other groups who opposed Mr. Chavez in the past, are disposed to a frank, open dialogue that would lead to practical solutions.

The events of last week brought into sharp contrast the divide between the 80 percent of Venezuela's 24 million people who live in poverty, and the middle and upper classes.

President Chavez has maintained a high degree of popularity in the poor sectors even though critics say he has done little to alleviate poverty. But he has been successful in milking resentments in the poor communities where many people blame the rich and corrupt politicians from past governments for their plight.

Business leaders and political opponents of the Chavez government say the country cannot go on like this or there will be class warfare that will harm everyone. They say it is time for Mr. Chavez to make drastic changes in his policies and to truly promote national reconciliation.

Chavez supporters say he has already shown good will and taken concrete steps in this direction by asking for the resignation of the board of directors at the state-run oil company. His appointment of political supporters to this board in February led to widespread protests and a strike by oil workers.

Oil accounts for more than half of government revenues and represents 80 percent of the nation's total exports. The strike is over, but critics say Mr. Chavez still needs to do more to address divisions in the society they say he has created.

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