CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Thousands of angry government opponents chanting “This is a dictatorship!” rallied in the capital’s streets yesterday, protesting the midnight arrest of a strike leader by secret police.
But President Hugo Chavez triumphantly proclaimed that he authorized the arrest of Carlos Fernandez even though it threatened to re-ignite massive demonstrations and again paralyze the country.
“One of the coup plotters was arrested last night. It was about time, and see how the others are running to hide,” Chavez said at the foreign ministry. “I went to bed with a smile.”
Chavez said judges should not “be afraid to issue arrest warrants against coup-plotters.”
Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela’s largest business federation, Fedecamaras, was seized by about eight armed agents around midnight Wednesday as he left a restaurant in Caracas’ trendy Las Mercedes district, said his bodyguard, Juan Carlos Fernandez.
The men fired into the air when patrons tried to prevent the arrest, the bodyguard said.
Carlos Fernandez faces charges of treason and instigating violence for leading the two-month strike that began Dec. 2, seeking to oust Chavez and force early elections.
The strike ended Feb. 4 in all sectors except the critical oil industry. Before the strike, Venezuela was the world’s fifth-largest petroleum exporter and a major U.S. supplier.
Government allies warned that more than 100 opposition leaders, from labor bosses to news media executives, who supported the strike also could be arrested.
“More than 100 are on the list to be captured,” ruling party lawmaker Luis Velasquez said.
The existence of such a list could not be immediately confirmed.
Opposition sympathizers at yesterday’s rally near an air force base in eastern Caracas lambasted Chavez, accusing the leftist leader of trying to establish a Cuban-style dictatorship in this South American nation of 24 million people.
“This is an escalation of violence by the government, which has arrived at the extreme of repression,” said Carlos Feijoo, 88, a retired oil worker. “He wants to copy Fidel (Castro).”
Fedecamaras Vice President Albis Munoz warned of another nationwide strike in response to the arrest.
“Definitely there will be actions, and very strong actions,” Munoz said.
The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers also said a 12- or 24-hour stoppage was possible.
Fernandez’s wife, Sonia, spoke briefly with her husband and said he was in good condition at secret police headquarters. Fernandez was meeting with his attorneys, she said.
Chavez supporters gathered near the headquarters and a downtown plaza to celebrate the arrest.
“It’s what had to be done. These opposition leaders tried to destroy the country, now they must be punished,” said Tomas Ordonez, a 49-year-old taxi driver.
Carlos Fernandez called the strike with Carlos Ortega, president of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation – the country’s largest labor union.
Ortega was ordered to surrender on treason and instigating violence charges, magistrate Maikel Jose Moreno said, but the tough-talking labor boss said he would not turn himself in.
“We have nothing to fear,” Ortega told Globovision TV channel via telephone. “The only one who has a date with justice is the president.”
Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, has accused the two opposition leaders of plotting to overthrow his government with the strike and by orchestrating “an economic coup.”
Chavez’s allies justified the arrest.
“Each member of the opposition must assume … the legal consequences of acts of oil sabotage and the attempt to topple a legitimate government,” ruling party leader Nicolas Maduro said.
Opposition leaders called for more street protests and appealed to the Organization of American States, the United Nations and The Carter Center, run by former President Jimmy Carter, for mediation.