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Venezuela's opposition feels heat from Chavez

Local leaders who defeated the president's candidates in last year's elections say Chavez is stripping them of resources and authority. A new law could give him still more power.

July 25, 2009|Chris Kraul

CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Politics has become an especially rough contact sport for Venezuelan state and local officials who oppose President Hugo Chavez.

Several governors and mayors who beat the fiery socialist leader's chosen candidates in November elections say Chavez has hijacked many of their resources and prerogatives. Now, proposed legislation that would give the president power to squeeze minority parties and arbitrarily redraw legislative districts has set off additional alarms.

Gov. Henrique Capriles, who defeated a close Chavez associate in elections in Miranda state, said in an interview Thursday that by not sharing federal revenue, Chavez had cut his state's income by 40%. He said Chavez had also taken over state-controlled entities, including ports, airports, a hospital and an asphalt plant, and appropriated 3,000 firearms from the state police.

"Chavez's worst fear is that my government proves to be more efficient than his," said Capriles, whose former opponent, Diosdado Cabello, is now a Chavez Cabinet minister.

On Wednesday, 90 residents of the town of Curiepe, in Miranda, demonstrated in front of Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas to protest the forced ejection last week of state police from their town hall by the National Guard. Most of the demonstrators described themselves as Chavez supporters.

"We didn't want to lose the state police because they are well respected and they help with social problems and drive our sick to the hospital. We don't know what we're getting in their place," said demonstrator Angelica Gerdler, a social worker in the town 100 miles east of Caracas, the capital.

Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and two state governors, all of whom also beat Chavista candidates last year, returned this week from the Organization of American States in Washington where they demanded an investigation of what they called Chavez's antidemocratic actions.

Ledezma has seen his office stripped of its budget and most of its powers through the formation of a Chavez-controlled "capital district." Armed Chavez supporters occupied city hall in January as authorities stood by, forcing Ledezma's government to seek space in a downtown office building.

"We were elected by a vote of the people but our difficulties show how far revenge can be taken," Ledezma said Thursday at a news conference. The mayor said OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza "has to choose between looking out for his job or democracy."

The governors who joined him in Washington were Cesar Perez Vivas of Tachira state and Pablo Perez of Zulia state.

In a July 14 speech, Chavez described the governors as "enemies of the people" and threatened to prosecute them for allegedly raising paramilitary armies. He said Perez Vivas could face treason charges.

Manuel Rosales, the mayor of Maracaibo who challenged Chavez in 2006 elections, fled the country and took political asylum in Peru in April after Chavez issued an arrest warrant on corruption charges. This week, Chavez expropriated Rosales' 900-acre ranch.

The Chavez-controlled National Assembly is considering election legislation that would restrict the representation of party coalitions, a measure that would favor Chavez's PSUV party. The opposition is currently splintered into several parties.

The measure, which was passed during an initial assembly reading in May, would also give the Chavez-controlled National Electoral Commission the power to arbitrarily redraw districts just before legislative elections scheduled for next year.

"The worrisome feature is the discretionary power it gives to the commission to redefine districts at any time just days before the election," said Juan Nagel, author of a study published last month in AnalysisVenezuela, a Caracas-based newsletter.

Francisco Monaldi, a visiting professor at Stanford University, said the legislation appears unconstitutional in the way it could reduce minority representation in the National Assembly unless opposition parties unite.

"The constitutions of 1961 and 1999 state that the electoral system has to be proportional. The reform proposed makes it clearly not proportional and makes gerrymandering -- designing of electoral districts to maximize your seats -- very easy," Monaldi said.

Caracas pollster Alfredo Keller says the proposals could be a response to public opinion, which he says is souring on Chavez's moves to absorb local powers. Keller says his research indicates that Chavez would lose control of the National Assembly if elections were held today.

In a poll he presented Wednesday before a Caracas business group, Keller said Venezuelans by a 3-1 margin prefer governors and mayors over the president to decide what local public works and policies to pursue. By a 5-1 margin, those polled said they opposed the transfer of local resources and powers to the national government.

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Kraul is a special correspondent.

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