Venezuelan Coup Leader Exits

Pedro Carmona, figurehead of a coup that briefly ousted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, arrives at a Colombian Air Force airport in Bogota" AP

Venezuelan businessman Pedro Carmona arrived in Colombia on Wednesday, evading likely rebellion charges back home for his day-long stint as national leader during an April coup that briefly deposed Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez.

Colombia granted Carmona asylum over the weekend.

The balding 61-year-old touched down at Bogota's Catam military airport mid-morning, exiting a twin engine Air Force plane in a business suit and carrying a briefcase.

He was whisked away in a sports utility vehicle and taken to an apartment in a wealthy district of the Andean capital without commenting to the press.

Carmona, who was president for less than 24 hours during Chavez's ouster last month, slipped away from house arrest in Caracas and took refuge in the Colombian ambassador's residence.

Chavez announced Monday that he would accept Colombia's decision — but called Carmona a fugitive of Venezuelan law.

His stay in Colombia, which has had tense relations with Venezuela throughout the Chavez administration, could be brief. Carmona was likely to move to a third country, said his lawyer, Juan Martin Echeverria.

The business leader was a central figure in investigations into the causes of last month's coup and faced likely charges of rebellion and "usurpation of power" at home. He claimed he was the victim of political persecution.

Chavez's short overthrow came after a general strike and a huge anti-Chavez march on April 11 that were organized by Carmona and ended in bloodshed when gunmen opened fire on the demonstrators.

Military officers seized on the chaos to lead a coup in the world's No. 5 oil exporter and named Carmona to head an interim government. He resigned less than one day later after a successful counter-attack by combat units loyal to Chavez, a fiery former paratrooper.

Chavez supporters want the government to press the rebellion charges against Carmona and, if necessary, seek his extradition. They worry that Carmona's case will trigger an exodus of alleged coup leaders.

Latin American nations have a long tradition of granting asylum to their neighbor's troublemakers, often in the interest of defusing political tension.

Colombia granted asylum to Peru's ex-President Alan Garcia in 1993, when his now disgraced successor, Alberto Fujimori, wanted to try him for corruption.

Brazil took in Paraguay's long-time dictator, Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, in 1989. Stroessner lives in Brazil's capital, just minutes from the presidential palace.

Chavez granted Carmona safe passage out of Caracas, and said that he respected Colombia's sovereign right to grant asylum to whomever it wished.

But it was unclear whether Colombia's decision had aggravated diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Relations between the two neighbors have been periodically strained. In March, a Colombian army general said leftist Colombian guerrillas were operating from a base in Venezuela.

Chavez, who has been accused by opponents of sympathizing with the rebels, furiously denied the charge.

Elected in 1998 on a platform of social reform, Chavez still faces opposition calls for his resignation. More than six weeks after the short-lived coup, his supporters and critics remain bitterly divided over the killings that triggered the uprising.

Carmona had strong ties with Colombia's business community, and local newspaper El Tiempo even ran the headline "Carmona: A Friend of Colombia" the morning after he swore himself in as president.

On Friday, Colombian President Andres Pastrana said in Bogota that the right to asylum was recognized under international law and that he hoped the incident would not disturb relations with Venezueala.

Peru could be another possible destination for Carmona, who lived there from 1979-85. Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo was in Washington at the time of the Venezuelan coup, and told a news conference there that Chavez would not be missed and was to blame for his predicament.
  • Lloyd Vries

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