CARACAS, Venezuela – A group of dissident military officers on Tuesday urged Venezuelans to rise up against President Hugo Chavez by protesting, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of major cities in response.
The 14 officers — at least nine of them accused of leading an April coup — called on soldiers and citizens to join them in an impromptu protest in an eastern Caracas plaza, which they declared a "territory liberated by the armed forces."
The government said the nation remained calm and that it had control of the military, even as thousand of anti-Chavez protesters rallied at the Caracas plaza, where the high-ranking officers were joined by at least seven junior officers. Rallies also took place in Valencia and Maracaibo. Chavez supporters converged on the presidential palace, setting off fireworks.
"We declare ourselves in legitimate disobedience and don't recognize the current regime," said army Gen. Enrique Medina Gomez, reading a statement on national television. "We call on all components of the armed forces to accompany us on this mission."
The rebellion call came a day after the opposition staged a general strike that closed thousands of businesses and called for a referendum on Chavez's rule, charging the fiery leftist former paratrooper is mismanaging the economy and polarizing Venezuelan society.
Chavez, who has angered Washington with anti-U.S. rhetoric and his ties with Cuba's Fidel Castro, was ousted for two days in April by dissident officers before being swept back to power. Rumors of coups have circulated in Venezuela ever since.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the country was "totally calm" and that Chavez was expected to address the nation later in the day.
"We've been in contact with every barracks throughout the country, with every command — the air force, the army, navy and national guard — and there is absolutely nothing happening," Rangel said. "Every commander totally repudiated these coup plotters who decided to go on an adventure."
Army Gen. Raul Baduel — who dispatched troops to restore Chavez during the coup and is one of the most powerful figures in the military — told reporters in the central city of Maracay that his division had government orders "to be ready to act at any moment, anywhere."
Baduel said the situation was calm and emphasized "our firm determination to respect the law."
There were no immediate reports of unusual troop movements. The dissident officers belong to the army, air force, navy and national guard.
Government television broadcast testimony and images implicating the officers in the coup, which was condemned by the Organization of American States.
OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria said the dissidents' statements "betray the constitutional loyalty that officials of the armed forces owe to President Chavez."
Rangel said the government would allow the officers to speak to the crowd in Altamira Plaza but that they will be prosecuted as called by the law.
A close Chavez ally, Tarek William Saab, head of the National Assembly's foreign affairs committee, dismissed the call as "an act of desperation" by individuals accused of overthrowing Chavez in April.
"What kind of officer is going to follow these antidemocratic officers?" Saab said. "There will not be another military coup."
The United States has voiced its opposition to any use of force either to oust or preserve Chavez's democratically elected government.
At least nine of the officers, including Medina Gomez, are under investigation for their roles in the April 12-14 coup that ousted Chavez and left dozens dead in rioting.
Medina Gomez claimed he wasn't calling for another military coup. But he cited a clause in Venezuela's constitution that allows citizens and the armed forces to rebel against a government that violates human rights.
National Assembly President Willian Lara said the officers "just burned their last links to the armed forces."
Opposition lawmaker Cesar Perez Vivas also criticized the announcement and called upon the military to remain in its barracks.
The officers' appeal exacerbated tensions stemming from Monday's general strike, the opposition's call for a referendum or early elections and claims by Chavez and his supporters that they had foiled two assassination plots against the president this week.
The opposition has begun a petition to call the nonbinding referendum, which it wants held on Dec. 4. Although Chavez would have no legal obligation to heed the vote, the opposition aims to embarrass him into resigning.
The OAS, which is trying to mediate an end to Venezuela's political crisis, says it will take at least six months to create an impartial council and update voter lists for a referendum.
Chavez says the constitution only allows a binding referendum halfway into his six-year term, in August 2003. Otherwise, the next presidential election is scheduled for December 2006.