Venezuela’s opposition ground down by Chavistas
By Frank Bajak, AP, Mar 15, 2013
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP)—The people tapped by Hugo Chavez to carry on his socialist revolution seem to be improvising the rules of governing as they march toward what most Venezuelans consider certain victory in a mid-April vote to replace the late president.
Chavez’s designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, and his ruling clique have repeatedly circumvented the constitution and exploited their monopoly on power to all but crush an opposition already crippled by years of government intimidation.
The odds are so stacked against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles that he has compared his run to being “led to a slaughterhouse and dropped into a meat grinder.”
Long before Chavez succumbed to cancer, Capriles and his supporters were already maligned and harassed, legally and financially, by the government, say human rights and press freedom analysts.
Now, they say, the repression is reaching new levels as the president’s heirs step up attacks to compensate for their lack of Chavez’s political acumen, charisma and moral authority.
Liliana Ortega, director of the COFAVIC human rights group, says the government acts with “military logic: You are loyal to me to the end. One small criticism, and you’re my enemy.”
The government has vilified Capriles as a “fascist” conspiring with U.S. putschists against the homeland. It hauls opposition leaders into court on criminal corruption charges. And it has impoverished Capriles’ campaign by wielding tax investigators against donors, the opposition says,
Venezuelans learned Monday that the owners of the last remaining TV channel critical of the government were selling the channel, under what they described as government coercion. And on Wednesday, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol announced the arrest of a 53-year-old woman for sending “destabilizing” messages on Twitter. He offered few details, and the woman could not be located.
All this as the Chavista leadership choreographs Maduro’s succession, dipping into a treasury fortified by revenues from the world’s largest oil reserves and wielding a state media machine that takes control of all airwaves at will.
“It is classic consolidation of power in a crisis,” said Adam Isacson, security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “There was always an effort to at least put a patina of legality on what was being done. There was always a process. There’s not much of a process now.”
“There is a blurring of constitutional mandates right now,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in California. “Maduro does not have the charisma, and the connection that Hugo Chavez had historically with the population.”
In February, authorities briefly detained the pilots of a loaned private plane that had brought Capriles back from a family visit to New York, with officials searching the plane up and down, people close to the candidate said on condition of anonymity due to the matter’s sensitivity.
And no sooner had Capriles announced his candidacy Sunday than Maduro was on the air, accusing him of seeking to provoke violence and suggesting he could face criminal charges for insulting Chavez’s family.
Although Venezuela’s high inflation, food shortages and rampant crime provide ample ammunition for criticizing the leadership, a hard political reality is that the opposition can’t match the enormous resources the government wields to win over voters, including a flurry of state TV channels that deluge the public with hours of fawning video of Maduro handing out free government housing and praying for the late leader.
Capriles’ campaign, meanwhile, is nearly destitute, carrying nearly $1 million in debt from the last campaign, said his campaign finance director, Rafael Guzman.
Although Venezuelan law allows businesses and individuals to freely make political contributions of any amount, the Chavista government persecutes people who donate to opposition candidates as if they were breaking the law, Guzman said.
“Here in Venezuela, it is basically a crime to do opposition politics,” he said.
If big companies contribute, tax authorities immediately jump on them and begin auditing for accounting irregularities, he said. “So we don’t even go to big companies,” he said.