The Miami Herald
Fri, May 8, 2009

Hugo Chávez tightens control by silencing adversaries


President Hugo Chávez has chased a political rival out of Venezuela on charges of stealing public funds, jailed a former loyal general also on corruption charges, and had a compliant Congress strip away almost the entire budget of the newly elected mayor of Caracas.

As part of the self-proclaimed Bolivarian revolution, the government also has expanded its offensive on the intellectual front by eliminating 60,000 books from the shelves of dozens of public libraries across the country, according to recent reports.

And now the Chávez-controlled Congress is preparing to snatch power from governors across Venezuela and hand over duties to Chávez-appointed officials in newly created positions.

Fresh off winning a referendum that could allow him to remain president until 2018 and perhaps for life, Chávez is sidelining enemies, stifling criticism and concentrating power in ways that critics and independent analysts say is creating an autocratic state with democratic trappings.

''The increasing power of the executive branch puts the democratic system at risk of collapse,'' Venezuela's Roman Catholic bishops said in a statement last month. "Those in power are making decisions that are on the margin or are against the spirit and letter of the Constitution.''

On Thursday, prominent Venezuelan nongovernmental organizations complained about another measure moving forward in Congress to tighten government control over nonprofit groups that receive assistance from abroad. Under the proposal, money given by foreign groups would have to go first to the Venezuelan treasury -- to keep money away from organizations critical of Chávez, opponents say.

Chávez is meeting little resistance to his audacious moves.

Maracaibo Mayor Manuel Rosales, his opponent in the 2006 presidential election, had to seek political asylum in Peru to avoid an arrest on corruption allegations. Security agents with guns drawn arrested former Gen. Raúl Isaias Baduel, who went from being Chávez's defense minister to his fiercest foe within the armed forces. And Congress has taken away 96 percent of the budget of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.

Next up before the Venezuelan Congress is a measure that would allow the president to appoint regional ''vice presidents'' to oversee governors.

Congressman Oswaldo Vera, a Chávez ally, said the measure was needed to coordinate development away from cities to sparsely populated areas of Venezuela.

Opponents and independent analysts say this is a flimsy excuse for another Chávez power grab.

The real purpose is ''to give Chávez the power to do whatever he wants across the country,'' said Ismael García, a member of Congress who leads the opposition Podemos political party. "Chávez has Congress legalize whatever he wants to do.''

The president has repeatedly complained that governors act like "Little Kings.''

A charismatic leader who has showered billions of dollars on the poor, Chávez enjoys enviable public support after 10 tumultuous years in power. He had a 59 percent approval rating in March, according to Caracas-based pollster Luis Vicente León.

Venezuelan voters strengthened his power in February by approving a referendum sought by Chávez that would allow him to seek another six-year term in 2012. If he wins, he could run for reelection in 2018 and every six years thereafter.

Many analysts believe Venezuela is becoming similar in important ways to Peru in the 1990s under President Alberto Fujimori. Peru held elections, but Fujimori ran roughshod over the country's constitution, controlled most media outlets and repressed the opposition selectively to extend his stay in power.

''Chávez's objective is to get rid of his adversaries and strengthen his control,'' said Fausto Maso, a Caracas-based radio commentator and political columnist.

Chávez's efforts to obtain absolute control has reached into the public library system.

The purged books -- including the works of authors such as Arturo Uslar Pietri of Venezuela, Antoine de Saint-Exupery of France and Alfred Hitchcock of England, all of whom wrote about the values of capitalism and a consumer society -- were turned into pulp or incinerated over the past two years.

According to authorities, the books were destroyed because they were in poor condition or outdated.

But Miriam Hermoso, the current director of the Autonomous Library Institute of Miranda that headed up an investigation into the matter, said the destroyed works had been selected for ''ideological'' reasons.

The Chávez government also has been targeting the news media.

Chávez gained near control over the airwaves last year when he refused to renew the license of RCTV, which regularly excoriated him in its news coverage.

Venezuela's opposition has yet to mount a meaningful protest.

Anti-Chávez unions organized a march in Caracas on May 1, International Labor Day. Police broke it up with tear gas and rubber bullets. University student leaders, who have organized massive street protests to Chávez during the past two years, have yet to be heard.

But Ledezma has yet to be cowed. He has objected repeatedly to Congress' decision to distribute his power and duties to other mayors allied with Chávez and to a ''vice president'' for Caracas newly appointed by the president.

Ledezma had been elected comfortably as mayor in November with 720,000 votes.

But all of his protests have been in vain. Police even tear-gassed Ledezma to prevent him from delivering a letter of complaint to Congress.

''Chavez has sent a clear signal with Rosales, Baduel and Ledezma that if anyone challenges him, they will be destroyed politically or imprisoned,'' León said.

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Casto Ocando contributed to this report.