CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities have launched a legal assault on the country’s top opposition leaders, helping leftist President Hugo Chavez consolidate his grip on the OPEC nation.
Nearly all of the country’s best-known anti-Chavez politicians are now either under indictment or facing investigation in what the opposition says are political witch-hunts but the government calls simple corruption probes.
Venezuela’s top opposition leader went into hiding and a prominent former Chavez ally was arrested last week as the combative ex-tank soldier critics call a dictator-in-the-making moves to protect his self-styled revolution from potential challengers.
After winning a February referendum that allows him to run for reelection as often as he likes, an invigorated Chavez stripped control of ports and roads from opposition governors and mayors who won key posts in a 2008 regional vote.
Chavez, a strident critic of the United States, has won repeated elections during his decade in power on a platform of redistributing oil wealth to the poor and has become the most visible leader of Latin America’s leftist movements.
Opposition leaders have failed to oust him through repeated national strikes and have struggled to produce a leader to rival his charisma and appeal.
“There is little doubt that Chavez is using the power of the state machinery to go after those opposition figures he deems threats to his authority,” said Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Top opposition leader Manuel Rosales, mayor of the second-largest city of Maracaibo, is in hiding. He says the government is persecuting him and has trumped up corruption accusations after Chavez last year vowed to jail him.
Ex-Defense Minister Raul Baduel, a former Chavez confidant who broke with him in 2007, was arrested last Thursday following charges of illicit enrichment.
Three of five opposition state governors elected in a regional vote last November are facing investigations by Congress or the tax authority, mostly over corruption allegations.
A Venezuelan court last week made the first convictions linked to a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez. That could open a flood of new legal charges against opposition politicians who were also involved in the putsch.
Chavez supporters say the opposition is crying foul only because prosecutors have caught up with their top leaders. They mock the opposition for complaining about rampant corruption one minute and decrying its investigation the next.
The government’s legal attack may well be politically motivated, but Venezuelans may offer little resistance to it because many top opposition leaders are still highly unpopular after years of political blunders.
Few Venezuelans have forgotten the efforts to oust Chavez through the 2002 botched coup and a two-month national strike, or the disastrous 2005 withdrawal from legislative elections that handed Chavez control of Congress.
Analysts say opposition gains in November’s elections were due as much to the mediocrity of Chavez’s regional allies as to high regard for opposition candidates.
But Chavez is taking no chances. He calls the recently elected opposition governors and mayors “fascists” who are seeking to dismantle the oil-financed health and education programs that have kept him popular.
Congress is even preparing to create a new vice-president who would rule the capital, Caracas, and determine in large measure how the city’s budget is allocated — undermining the fiercely anti-Chavez politician elected mayor in November, Antonio Ledezma.
“This is (Chavez’s) first step toward eliminating governors and mayors and definitively putting the country’s institutions in his fist so he can control them all,” said Chavez opponent and newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff in a televised interview.
Petkoff says he himself is under congressional investigation for failing to pay taxes on an inheritance he received in 1974 — a move he called “incredible.”
Venezuela provoked international criticism last year by blocking the candidacies of key opposition leaders for a regional vote on charges of corruption, though they were not tried in court or convicted.
“These recent moves by Chavez have the clear purpose of emasculating the opposition to ensure that there be no repeat of its previous victories in the next elections,” said Latin America expert David Scott Palmer of Boston University.
Additional Reporting by Patricia Rondon Espin, Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Frances Kerry