CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez said Wednesday that the United States suffered a humiliating defeat in its move to condemn Venezuela internationally for forcing an opposition-aligned TV station off the airwaves.
Chavez began a news conference by playing a video of heated debate between his foreign minister and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at an Organization of American States meeting in Panama on Tuesday. The OAS declined to adopt a U.S. request to investigate his government's removal of Radio Caracas Television from the air.
"A great defeat for the empire," said Chavez, who said OAS member countries had refused "to play (Washington's) game" and instead backed his government.
"It was the greatest defeat — a moral defeat, a political defeat," said Chavez, who maintains the government made a proper legal decision not to renew the channel's license.
In the video of the OAS meeting, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro demanded that the OAS investigate rights violations at the U.S. prison on Guantanamo and on the U.S.-Mexico border before Rice walked out.
"She was trying to maintain her calm, but already from the beginning you could tell she was a little annoyed," Chavez said. "I know her very well and I know when she's annoyed ... surely because they couldn't find anyone to do their work, their dirty work, and she had to leave."
Chavez has said he will not go back on his refusal to renew the license of RCTV, which he accuses of a key role in backing a short-lived 2002 coup against him.
RCTV, the country's oldest and most-watched private channel, went off the air May 27, and its license was turned over to a state-funded channel. Chavez says he is democratizing the airwaves and that freedom of speech will be respected.
Before Chavez spoke, thousands of protesters — mostly university students — filled the streets chanting "We want freedom!" as they marched to the attorney general's office in Caracas to denounce the government action.
Some flew the Venezuelan flag upside down as a symbol of protest while hundreds of riot police and National Guard troops watched.
"We've decided to stay in the streets until our rights are respected," said Cesar Felizzola, a 22-year-old university student. "We're fighting for freedom to be respected."
Chavez says the student protesters are being manipulated by his foes and by Washington.
He said Wednesday said Venezuelan troops are preparing for a "war of resistance" in case of a U.S. attack. American officials have denied any such plans but have expressed concerns about democracy in Venezuela.
Most of the Venezuelan news media are in private hands, including many newspapers and radio stations that remain critical of Chavez. The only other major opposition-sided TV channel is Globovision, and it is not seen in all parts of the country.
Some of RCTV's programs are still making their way to viewers on the Internet or by satellite to stations abroad. Other shows reach no audience at all, but actors, cameramen and sound engineers continue to produce them in hopes they may once again be seen, if only by cable.
Surveys since May 14 have shown that 78 to 83 percent of the public disagrees with the removal of RCTV, said Oscar Schemel, president of Caracas-based pollster Hinterlaces.
The results are based on phone interviews with about 900 people in 15 states using a random sample of fixed-line and cellular numbers, Schemel said. The poll, commissioned by private banks, has a margin of error of about 5 percentage points, he said.
Government officials have questioned the financing and methods of some recent polls, saying they appear to be propaganda issued by Chavez opponents. But the government has not provided alternative figures recently.
RCTV talk show host Miguel Angel Rodriguez told reporters in Peru that the government is trying to "annihilate any kind of criticism."
"As a journalist, I'm very worried about the possibility that this will unleash a wave of repression," he said, "because instead of rectifying, (Chavez) is turning his back on what the people are telling him."