Venezuela Returning To Normal After Chavez Reappears

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

( - Venezuelans appeared to be returning to work and going about their business Monday now that President Hugo Chavez is back in power, two days after being forced out by the country's military.

He formally resumed his presidential powers Sunday in a televised ceremony at the presidential palace in Caracas. Chavez fell from power on Friday after military leaders blamed him for the deaths of at least 13 people in anti-government protests in Caracas.

He also announced the resignation of the board of directors that he appointed to the state-owned oil company, a move that sparked a national strike against the Chavez government last week.

The United States is Venezuela's third largest oil importer.

Chavez said in his brief exile, he was able to reflect on many things that were happening in the country. He pledged to make amends.

"I come disposed to make corrections where I have to make corrections," he said.

Many Venezuelans are concerned about a possible government crackdown against Chavez's opponents. But on Sunday, he said, "There will be no witch hunts, no persecution, no disrespect for free expression or thought."

The Bush administration responded to Chavez's return by urging him to reconsider his policies.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called for a national reconciliation.

"We do hope that Mr. Chavez takes advantage of this opportunity to right his own ship which has, quite frankly, been moving in the wrong direction for some time," Rice said on NBC's Meet The Press.

"I hope Hugo Chavez takes the message that his people sent him that his own policies are not working for the Venezuelan people," she added.

Cuba's Castro government hailed Chavez's reinstatement, saying it was "a revolutionary victory over a fascist and reactionary counter-revolutionary coup."

At least one Latin American analyst, Steve Johnson of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said the latest events are taking Venezuelans into "uncharted territory."

"What lies ahead is anyone's guess. Chavez has been a divider, not a healer. He typically hardens his resolve when confronted with opposition. It is not likely he will allow much room for open debate or dissent," said Johnson in a position paper.

Johnson said leaders of neighboring countries should be worried, especially since Chavez has allowed Colombian rebels to establish camps inside Venezuelan territory.

The United States is right to restrain its response for the time being, according to Johnson. However, he said the U.S. should "improve commercial relations with nations such as Brazil that Chavez had been courting as potential opponents of free trade," he said.

"Unless Chavez can be persuaded to mend his ways, Venezuela can anticipate more political turmoil, continued economic decline, and an out-migration of talent and capital," Johnson concluded.

However, Richard Bennett of AFI Research, a London-based defense and security think tank, believes that Chavez's return to power is a "major embarrassment" and a "potential threat" to the United States.

"Chavez has close links to Cuba, Iraq and a number of other states openly on Washington's 'hit list.' Even more importantly he controls the world's fourth largest oil reserve and could prove a valuable ally to Saddam Hussein," said Bennett.

"Just how far Chavez will feel able to go in openly challenging Washington is uncertain, and the possible reaction of the Venezuelan military and their United States supporters leaves this divided nation dangerously on the edge of outright civil war," Bennett concluded.

The Wall Street Journal, in a Monday editorial headlined "Castro's Man in Caracas," said last weekend's turmoil "is also a reminder of Latin America's dangerous deterioration."

"Most U.S. media haven't noticed, but half of that continent is in political or economic trouble, or both, following a decade of U.S. mistakes and neglect. Maybe the Chavez fiasco will alert American elites, especially Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to stop indulging cold war grudges and start addressing current problems in the region," the Journal said.

Dodd is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs.

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