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Senior Venezuelan Military Officers Continue to Defy Government - 2002-10-26

More than 72 hours after declaring a campaign of what they term "legitimate disobedience" against the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a group of senior military officers is still defying the authorities in a Caracas square. They are surrounded by thousands of civilian supporters. Mr. Chavez appears to be losing patience with the rebels.

When the rebel officers first made their pronouncement Tuesday, President Chavez remained silent. Vice-president Jose Vicente Rangel described the dissident generals and admirals as "clowns" and said they represented no one in the armed forces. But the demonstrators in the Caracas plaza have not faded away. And dozens more officers, along with key figures from the civilian opposition, have visited the square to offer solidarity.

Mr. Chavez now says the government is obliged to act against what he calls "fascists and coup-plotters", adding that the people too, must act. This last phrase has many in the opposition worried: they feel it may foreshadow violence by some of the armed civilian radicals who support the president.

The officers, none of whom commands troops, argue that Mr Chavez, though an elected president, is seeking to impose a leftist revolution the majority of Venezuelans reject. They say he has eliminated the checks and balances of a normal democracy by concentrating power in his own hands. And they are invoking a clause Mr. Chavez himself inserted in the new, 1999 constitution. It enshrines the right to rebel against an undemocratic regime.

The civilian opposition, which is fearful of being seen as favoring a military coup, has nonetheless mostly lined up behind the generals. The civilians have agreed that the way forward is for the president to call early elections or an immediate referendum on his presidency, both of which he has rejected.

The stalemate could lead to violence. However, no units of the armed forces have yet declared themselves in revolt, and there is an external audience to consider. On Sunday, Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, is due to arrive in Caracas. Mr Gaviria is trying to get the government and opposition to sit down to talks, and neither side wants to be seen as responsible for violence.

On the other hand, the government would rather the plaza were empty when the OAS delegation arrives. And the opposition wants to see it full. For the opposition, Venezuela is ungovernable with Mr. Chavez in power. The president's argument is that chaos would ensue if he were forced from office.

The stakes are high, and the next few days may prove crucial for the resolution of the country's political crisis.