US warns Venezuela military over poll

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The Independent Online
AMID persistent rumours of a possible military coup in Venezuela, the President Bill Clinton has issued a thinly-veiled warning to Venzuela's military, which will be out in force to 'protect' the general elections on Sunday, to ensure they return to their barracks afterwards.

Mr Clinton sent a senior envoy, his assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, Alexander Watson, to Caracas to meet the leading candidates and convey a similar message to them, to avoid provoking any military intervention whatever Sunday's outcome.

No sooner had Mr Watson passed on the warning than Venezuelan military intelligence claimed to have uncovered a potential coup plot that was to have started yesterday morning.

Military intelligence sources said that the armed forces were looking for a retired general, Carlos Santiago Ramirez, alleged leader of the plot. The general, in command of a division until his retirement last year, had apparently got wind that his attempt had been discovered and had gone underground, the sources said.

General Santiago Ramirez had been linked with Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez, currently in military detention after attempting an earlier coup, and had planned to free him, they added.

Talk of possible coups is common. There is a degree of coup paranoia following last year's two attempts and because Sunday's race will be close. There is also widespread disillusionment with the candidates.

Washington is clearly concerned that a break in the democratic chain on the South American mainland would be a setback for Mr Clinton's hopes of expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) into a US-dominated free market zone.

Mr Watson met Venezuela's interim president, Ramon Jose Velasquez, who is filling in for the suspended Carlos Andrez Perez, to pass on Mr Clinton's message. 'Any interruption in the democratic process in Venezuela would inevitably have an immediate and chilling impact on the full range of our bilateral relations,' it said, according to media reports here.

'There would be no possibility of a normal relationship between the United States and a non-democratic Venezuela. Venezuela's problems can only be successfully solved within a democratic framework and any other way would constitute a tremendous political and economic setback for the people of Venezuela and the hemisphere,' it added.