(c) 2009, The Washington Post
A top Venezuelan opposition leader is seeking political asylum in Peru, according to his aides, after fleeing his country to avoid what he calls a politically motivated witch hunt directed by the government of President Hugo Chavez.
Manuel Rosales, a fierce critic of Chavez and until last month the mayor of Venezuela's second-largest city, left the country Sunday amid a wave of indictments and government investigations of the president's most vocal political foes. The Chavez administration has also stripped some functions of government from opposition politicians who wrested control of several of Venezuela's biggest cities and states from his socialist party in regional elections in November.
"There is a persecution against the entire democratic dissidents movement in this country," Edward Rodriguez, a spokesman for Rosales, said Tuesday by phone. "It is a political persecution, and it is not just against him."
Venezuela's justice minister, Tareck El Aissami, told state television in Caracas, the capital, that the investigation against Rosales was criminal, not political. "This citizen is being investigated by Venezuelan justice for crimes outlined in the anti-corruption law," he said, adding that the government will seek his extradition.
Prosecutors called for Rosales's arrest in March on charges of illicit enrichment, and lawmakers in the National Assembly have opened a probe to determine the source of $60,000 that Rosales made while governor of the oil-rich state of Zulia. Rosales was elected mayor of Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia, in November but stepped down last month in the wake of the government's investigation.
All but a dozen members of the National Assembly openly side with Chavez, and his allies are stacked throughout the judicial system, including the Supreme Court. Chavez has said he was determined to jail Rosales, leader of the New Time political party, and "wipe" him "from the political map."
"I have decided to make Manuel Rosales a prisoner," Chavez said in October. Soon after, authorities in the attorney general's office and a special commission in the assembly launched investigations against him.
Asdrubal Quintero, a legal adviser to Rosales, said by phone from Maracaibo that Rosales had considered showing up at a pretrial hearing Monday to argue that the money in question was earned legally through his agricultural business.
But Quintero said the opposition leader decided to flee after Ismael Garcia, an anti-Chavez lawmaker in the National Assembly, announced that he had obtained a draft of a sentencing document against him. The document, Garcia said, showed that Rosales was to be sentenced to a 30-year prison term.
"The idea was to capture him and imprison him," Quintero said. "This is the operating style of a dictatorship."
Opposition leaders characterize the crackdown as a government strategy designed, in effect, to criminalize the opposition movement. "It is a general political witch hunt that no sector that opposes the government can escape," Antonio Ledezma, mayor of metropolitan Caracas, said in an interview.
This month, authorities with guns drawn arrested former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, once a close friend of Chavez who turned against him, on corruption charges. Authorities have also announced investigations against Henrique Salas, governor of the economically important state of Carabobo, and Cesar Perez Vivas, governor of the border state of Tachira.
Tax authorities, meanwhile, are investigating Henrique Capriles Radonski, governor of Miranda state, and Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor whose columns have infuriated the government.
In office since 1998, Chavez won a referendum in February that eliminates term limits and permits him to run for office indefinitely. Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst and pollster with a Caracas firm, Datanalisis, said that the president wants to use his new-found political capital to push through controversial reforms, including the centralization of power. Leon said a vital part of the strategy is demonizing opposition leaders.
"He has to make sure that the opposition is seen as being responsible for going against the interests of the people," Leon said. "For some people, middle class people, what is happening is an attack on the opposition, but for another part of the population, it is not."
Indeed, Chavez continues to enjoy the support of 61 percent of Venezuelans, Leon said. A disjointed opposition, meanwhile, faces obstacles in winning converts despite polls that show Venezuelans tired of rampant crime, food shortages and other problems. Leon said the investigations against key opposition leaders could further weaken the anti-government movement.
Even those leaders who are not facing investigation, like Ledezma, who was elected mayor of greater Caracas in November, have seen their power diminish in recent months. Oversight of police agencies, hospitals and other services have reverted to central government control. Chavez has also appointed a special vice president who will oversee much of the city's budget.
"It is a way to asphyxiate us financially," Ledezma said. "In addition to being unconstitutional, it is a way of not recognizing the will of the people who elected me as mayor."