Venezuelan Military Officer Demands That Chavez Resign

A Venezuelan Navy vice admiral demanded Monday that President Hugo Chavez resign in the latest show of discontent among military top brass with the leftist leader's stewardship of this South American nation.

Vice Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo, who serves as Venezuela's ambassador to Greece, spoke at a news conference in Caracas and urged his military colleagues to add their voices to increasing demands that Chavez step down.

Molina Tamayo was the highest-ranking officer to demand that Chavez, a former army paratrooper, resign. The vice admiral said he received extensive military training in the United States and Europe and is director of Venezuela's naval weaponry program.

Earlier this month, an air force colonel and a National Guard captain also demanded Chavez's resignation. Their demands generated spontaneous anti-Chavez protests that drew thousands to Caracas' streets and spurred millions of dollars in capital flight.

Partly as a result, Chavez was forced to abandon a costly fixed currency exchange regime last week and allow the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar, to float against the U.S. dollar. The bolivar lost more than 9 percent of its value against the dollar last week.

Wearing his full colors and reading a prepared statement, Molina Tamayo accused Chavez and a National Assembly, Supreme Court, elections board and finance ministry dominated by Chavez allies of seeking to impose a totalitarian regime here.

He warned that Chavez's combative style of government, and his creation of neighborhood committees known as "Bolivarian Circles," could provoke unnecessary bloodshed between Chavez defenders and an increasingly potent opposition.

The vice admiral — who said he was trained in electronic warfare in the United States — accused Chavez of veering Venezuela away from its traditional allies, such as Washington, and damaging its interests by cozying up to Cuba and other totalitarian regimes.

"I publicly state my rejection of the conduct of President Chavez and his regime," he said. "We demand a truly democratic system."

Molina Tamayo condemned what he called "a lack of state of law" in Venezuela; condemned Venezuela's relations with "the terrorist Colombian guerrillas;" lambasted what he called illicit "enrichment" of top government officials; accused Chavez of installing "an extreme leftist" regime; and demanded an end to Venezuelan sales of oil to Cuba.

His demands were likely to exacerbate uncertainty about Venezuela's political stability and its economic prospects.

Investors and citizens sent hundreds of millions of dollars abroad after the earlier demands for Chavez's resignation by Air Force Col. Pedro Soto and National Guard Capt. Pedro Flores, who claimed to be speaking for most of Venezuela's armed forces.

Chavez and Venezuela's top armed forces commanders insist that the military remains loyal to the president. They dismissed Soto's claims as griping by an officer passed over for promotion to general.

But the dissident officers say the military is upset with being forced into nontraditional roles, such as crime fighting and social work, instead of defending the nation. Some officers are known to be upset with the Chavez administration's relations with Marxist Colombian guerrillas and Cuba's Fidel Castro, noting the army fought Castro-backed guerrillas in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chavez insists his contacts with the Colombian rebels are meant to help end that nation's 38-year-old civil war.

Chavez led a failed 1992 coup against President Carlos Andres Perez. He spent two years in prison, then campaigned tirelessly across Venezuela on an anti-corruption and anti-poverty platform.

Chavez won the presidency with 80 percent of the vote in 1998. Over the past year, however, his popularity has plunged as his combative rhetoric and unilateral decree of economic laws alienated business, labor, the news media and the Roman Catholic Church.

Support among the poor, his key constituency, could weaken as unemployment persists, crime soars, and Venezuela's oil-dependent economy suffers from the global drop in oil prices, Venezuelan analysts say.