Venezuela ‘Becoming More Repressive,’ Critics Say

April 9, 2009 - 5:58 AM
<br />
Caracas, Venezuela (AP) - The mayor of Venezuela's capital just lost much of his authority. The mayor of Maracaibo, the country's second-largest city, is in hiding. Soldiers have taken over ports once controlled by governors who are members of the opposition.
 
Opponents of President Hugo Chavez say a series of moves by the socialist leader's allies, including targeted corruption probes and laws shifting power away from opposition-held offices, mark a power grab by Chavez at a time when he's feeling emboldened by a referendum win allowing indefinite re-election.
 
"It's a government that's becoming more strongly centered on the figure of the president and it's becoming more repressive," said Margarita Lopez Maya, a Venezuelan historian.
 
Chavez denies involvement in corruption cases being pressed against top opposition leaders but insists many are "criminals" and "mafiosos" who should face justice.
 
"Let the bourgeoisie squeal, but there has to be justice," Chavez said during a visit to China.
 
The most recent move limiting the power of an opposition figure came Tuesday, when the pro-Chavez National Assembly weakened Caracas' newly elected mayor by taking away offices including city hall and eliminating most of his responsibilities for city services. Instead, authority will be transferred to an official appointed by Chavez to oversee the capital.
 
Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who replaced a Chavez ally, plans through a referendum to challenge the law that has usurped his powers. Some of his authority was already diminished when outgoing pro-Chavez Mayor Juan Barreto transferred the police and city hospitals to the national government. The new law strips Ledezma of responsibility for health, police and education, reducing his role to one of coordination between district mayors.
 
It's not yet clear how the law will effect Ledezma's budget -- an issue to be decided in the next month -- but he could lose federal funds.
 
Chavez on Tuesday defended the law as "absolutely necessary" to provide better administration in Caracas and said municipal governments "are going to remain intact."
 
Earlier, another law brought seaports and airports under federal control and Chavez sent troops to take over some of them.
 
The law bringing transportation hubs under federal control affects all local leaders, but key opposition politicians will be hurt most because they previously administered some of the country's largest ports and no longer receive revenues from tariffs.
 
Prosecutors also have resurrected a corruption case against opposition leader Manuel Rosales and jailed former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, a Chavez critic who faces an accusation that funds went missing on his watch. In contrast, not a single prominent politician currently allied with Chavez has been charged with corruption -- in spite of many accusations by critics.
 
Chavez's authoritarianism has become increasingly apparent as he has concentrated power since winning a Feb. 15 vote that eliminated term limits, said Lopez Maya, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
 
"The judicial branch is now more openly under the president's control, and it does what the president wants it to do," Lopez Maya said, adding that corruption accusations are being used to weaken and intimidate the president's enemies.
 
The National Assembly has been predominantly pro-Chavez since an opposition election boycott in 2005, and government opponents no longer trust courts widely perceived to be in Chavez's pocket.
 
Before going into hiding last week citing harassment, Rosales told The Associated Press that the legal moves against him are a "smoke screen" ordered by Chavez to distract the public while taking unpopular steps to cut spending due to the decline in oil earnings.
 
"He has no qualms about pulling legal strings to persecute and criminalize dissent," Rosales told the AP.
 
Rosales, the mayor of Maracaibo, wrested control of the city away from a pro-Chavez politician in November elections. Chavez's candidates held on to the majority of state and local posts, but the opposition made modest gains by capturing five governorships -- including three of Venezuela's most populous states -- and the Caracas mayor's office.
 
Information Minister Jesse Chacon denied any government effort to clamp down on the opposition or intimidate anti-Chavez leaders. He said if the opposition disagrees with laws, they should challenge them in the Supreme Court.
 
As for Rosales, he said there's plenty of evidence against the opposition leader to take him to trial, including luxury homes and ranches.
 
"There's a file that could fill this room," Chacon told reporters.
 
Rosales, who ran unsuccessfully against Chavez in the 2006 presidential race, insists he's innocent of the charge of illegal enrichment and says it's an attempt at a "political lynching."
 
Rosales' party attributed his decision to go into hiding last week to harassment and fears for his safety. A court in Caracas is scheduled to decide whether to accept the corruption charge against Rosales on April 20 and is to rule on a prosecutor's request to jail him.
 
But Chavez supporters say the president isn't trying to intimidate anyone or take away opponents' power.
 
"There's a completely irrational segment of the opposition, which labels as unconstitutional any initiative by the government -- and any decision by authorities to fight against corruption," pro-Chavez lawmaker Mario Isea said.
 
--------
 
Associated Press Writer Ian James contributed to this report.