CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's military tapped a leading businessman Friday to replace former leftist president Hugo Chavez, whose combative rule was ended by army commanders after a bloody repression of a huge street protest.
Pedro Carmona -- a figure straight from the economic elite Chavez had demonized during his three-year rule -- said he would hold legislative and presidential elections within a year to replace Chavez.
But Carmona's appointment was challenged by Venezuela's attorney general as unconstitutional, and several Latin American nations condemned Chavez's ouster Friday.
Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez said Chavez was still president because he had not, in fact, resigned but was forced out by the military. Rodriguez said the constitution calls for Chavez's resignation to be accepted by Congress.
In Costa Rica, leaders at the summit of the 19-nation Rio Group of Latin American countries condemned "the interruption of constitutional order" in Venezuela.
Mexican President Vicente Foz said his country would not recognize Venezuela's new goverment until new elections are held, though he said diplomatic relations continue. Brazil, meanwhile, urged Venezuela to hold new elections as soon as possible.
There was no immediate response from the high command or Carmona, who was sworn in late Friday after his supporters issued a declaration accusing Chavez of violating democratic norms and human rights.
Carmona dissolved the formerly Chavez-controlled congress, Supreme Court, attorney general's and comptroller's offices, and he declared a 1999 Constitution sponsored by Chavez null and void. Venezuela will return to a bicameral legislature under the previous constitution, he said.
Carmona also suspended 48 laws decreed by Chavez in November that generally increased the state's role in the economy. A 25-member advisory council was appointed.
Chavez, who could face charges for the deaths of protesters, was being held in an army base after being taken from his palace before dawn. The former paratrooper's strong-arm drive to impose a "revolution" had polarized Venezuela, and his friendships with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Iraq's Saddam Hussein had angered the United States.
Carmona promised an end to anti-Chavez strikes that had severely cut oil production by Venezuela, the third biggest supplier to the United States and the world's fourth biggest oil exporter.
"Everyone will feel that there exists plenty of freedom, pluralism and respect for the state of law," the mild-mannered 60-year-old Carmona said. He urged Venezuelans to help him restore stability to the struggling economy.
Generals said Chavez, 47, was forced to resign by his military high command overnight after his civilian supporters opened fire on protesters in an 150,000-strong anti-Chavez march on Thursday. At least 14 people were killed and 240 wounded.
However, Chavez's allies on Friday denied he resigned and called the army move a coup.
The United States called for calm and blamed Chavez for his own ouster. The State Department said "undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration" provoked Thursday's crisis. President Bush said "now the situation will be one of tranquility and democracy," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Streets were quiet Friday after a night of celebrations. Venezuelans' triumph on Friday was mixed with sorrow as vigils were held for the dead and wounded. "Day of Sorrow," read newspaper headlines.
Angered by the order to turn their weapons on civilians, the military rejected Chavez's request for exile in Cuba and took him from the palace to an army base before dawn.
Security forces conducted house to house searches Friday for members of so-called "Bolivarian Circles," citizens' groups said to have been armed by Chavez's government. Anti-Chavez politicians said they still feared assassination by the "Chavistas." Police searched the home of Chavez supporter, Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal, who was missing.
Miguel Dao, head of Venezuela's security police, said his forces were looking for 1,500 rifles missing from a police station and allegedly given to Chavez supporters.
Police captured former Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, and a mob tried to attack him as he was led away.
Popular resentment toward Chavez, who was elected in 1998 on an anti-poverty platform and whose term was to expire in 2006, had been building for months.
The armed forces -- with traditionally strong ties to the U.S. military -- resented Chavez's distancing of Venezuela from Washington. Many also resented Chavez's ties with leftist Colombian guerrillas, who allegedly sometimes operated in Venezuelan territory, and with Cuba: Many senior officers had fought Cuban-backed communist guerrillas in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The pugnacious president alienated Washington with his close ties to Castro, visits to Iraq, Iran and Libya, criticism of U.S. bombings in Afghanistan and opposition to free trade.
He exasperated Venezuelans by implementing economic policies by decree and accusing the media and Roman Catholic Church leaders of constantly conspiring to overthrow him. He squandered an opportunity to improve the lot of 80 percent of Venezuelans who live in poverty.
Chavez's one-time 80 percent popularity ratings had plunged to below 30 percent.
Monsignor Baltazar Porras, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, said Chavez called him at midnight to the palace Thursday to ask him to guarantee his life as the military turned against him.
Porras, who sparred frequently with Chavez, said Chavez asked him for forgiveness for his clashes with the church.
Chavez's daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, told Cuba's state-run television that her father had contacted her and denied resigned. His arrest was "simply a coup," she said. The attorney general, Isaias Rodriguez, said Chavez was still considered president since Congress had not accepted his resignation.
Chavez's replacement was a leader of the general strike this week that eventually sparked the former president's removal.
Carmona's business chamber, Fedecamaras, joined the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation in calling the strike in support of executives at the state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, who were protesting moves by Chavez.
The strike culminated with Thursday's giant march through the capital, Caracas.
Carmona is an economist who has degrees from Caracas' Andres Bello Catholic University and the University of Brussels. He has represented Venezuelan commercial and diplomatic missions abroad.
"He always surrounds himself with capable people, and I'm sure that's what he will do now," said Juan Calvo, an executive who has known Carmona for more than 30 years.
The Venezuelan Workers Confederation warned Carmona that he will have to address pressing labor issues such as billions of dollars in wages and pensions owed public workers.
Inspired by Chavez's ouster, workers at Petroleos de Venezuela moved quickly to bring production and exports of crude oil and refined products back to full capacity. Monopoly executive Horacio Medina estimated that operations will be normal within a week.
Management had been protesting a reshuffle of the company board by Chavez six weeks ago.
Analysts predicted that Carmona will abandon Chavez's strict compliance with Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries quotas and revamp, if not abolish, an oil law that made foreign investment in Venezuelan oil more costly.
"I foresee a great future for Petroleos de Venezuela and the country. Venezuela has a lot of oil and a big change is coming," said Jose Toro Hardy, a former monopoly president.