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Venezuelan President Resigns - 2002-04-12

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias has resigned and turned power over to military leaders who are now trying to form a transitional government. This followed several hours of strife in Caracas Thursday in which at least a dozen people died.

Spontaneous celebrations have broken out in parts of Caracas after local media announced the resignation of the controversial leader. Mr. Chavez resigned after high-ranking military officers abandoned him and demanded he step down. The officers cited, among other things, the president's use of deadly force against civilian demonstrators on Thursday. Witnesses say snipers fired on the crowd from buildings near the presidential palace.

The transition government is being put together by the former director of the state-owned oil company, Petroleos Venezolanos, Guaicaipuro Lameda. He is calling for calm as the effort to restore governability goes forward.

He says that, at this time, it is important to call on the Venezuelan people to remain peaceful and calm and to put their faith in the group of people who are now working to reconstruct the government.

Mr. Lameda was forced out of his position as director of the oil company several weeks ago when President Chavez replaced the entire executive board with political supporters. This led to protests by oil workers who resented the move to politicize a company that has long been known for its efficiency and its detachment from politics.

A strike by oil workers in recent days caused a drastic drop in petroleum exports. Venezuela relies on oil revenues for half its government funding and the oil sector represents around 70 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product.

The rise and fall of Hugo Chavez will no doubt be the subject of political analysis for years to come. The leader of a failed coup in 1992, Mr. Chavez came to power with broad public support in a democratic election more than three years ago.

In the past few months, however, Mr. Chavez's support had fallen to below 30 percent. The business community, the Catholic Church, union leaders and even some leftist student groups came together to call for his resignation. Mr. Chavez seemed oblivious to the deteriorating situation and continued to speak of what he called his "revolution." In the past three months a total of five high-ranking military officers had called on him to resign, but he ignored them.

In the end, it was the almost total abandonment by the military that brought down his government. Three generals came to his office in the early morning Friday, Caracas time, to demand his resignation and to start the process of forming an interim government.