Chávez's Legal Weapon

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, October 30, 2006

Is Hugo Chávez an autocrat? His propagandists argue that he has won two democratic elections for president and faces vigorous opposition in his bid for reelection in December. What's more, they say, the self-styled "Bolivarian" revolutionary is assailed daily by Venezuelan newspapers and television networks sympathetic to the opposition.

All true enough, but what matters most in measuring freedom is the trend. Venezuela had free elections and a free press for 40 years before Chávez was elected. It also had an independent judiciary. Two years ago Venezuela's would-be liberator gained control of the legal system, in part by packing the Supreme Court. Since then he has been using it as a weapon against both the news media and the political opposition. That means the struggle over Venezuela's future is being waged in a host of often-tangled courtroom cases that are mostly ignored outside the country.

One in particular is worth recounting because it offers a measure of how aggressive Chávez has become -- and how much opposition he still faces. That is the November 2004 murder of Chávez's chief state prosecutor, Danilo Anderson. Anderson was killed by a car bomb in Caracas while he was conducting a high-profile investigation into a failed coup against Chávez. In the days after the murder, the case won some international attention as the president staged a state funeral for his aide and proclaimed him a martyr of his revolution. Murals and posters of Anderson appeared around the country, as if he were a latter-day Che.

Unfortunately, few outside Venezuela paid attention to what happened next: Opposition journalists began digging into the case and found a very different story. Anderson, it turned out, was living far beyond his means and had a huge stash of cash in his home. He was alleged to have participated in an extortion racket that included lawyers, government prosecutors and judges -- a conspiracy that was said to touch Chávez's vice president, José Vicente Rangel. Ten days after the bombing, a lawyer suspected of involvement was shot dead by police; three former policemen with links to the lawyer were arrested, convicted of carrying out Anderson's murder and sentenced to 27 to 30 years in prison.

Chávez's justice minister, Isaias Rodriguez, at first promised to investigate the extortion racket. Unsurprisingly, there was no result. Instead, a few months later, Rodriguez launched the case in a different direction. Last November he grandly ordered the arrest of four people he said would be charged with premeditated murder as the "intellectual authors" of Anderson's killing. All were members of the opposition. One was a prominent member of Venezuela's Cuban exile community, which particularly irks a president whose closest ally is Fidel Castro. But most strikingly, one was the very journalist who had broken several of the stories about Anderson's criminal connections: Patricia Poleo, an award-winning reporter.

As Poleo exiled herself in Miami to avoid arrest, Rodriguez spun out his tale. He had, he said, a star witness, a former operative of both the Colombian secret police and its right-wing paramilitary movement who would testify that Poleo and the other opposition leaders met in Panama and Miami to plot the murder with agents of the CIA and FBI. The witness, Giovanny Vásquez, duly appeared at the trials of the three policemen last December. The killing of Anderson, he claimed, was merely the first step in a U.S. plan to kill Chávez.

The murder charge against Poleo clearly was intended to frighten the Venezuelan media into silence. But it didn't. Instead, several other investigative reporters pressed the case. By early this year, they had proved that star witness Vásquez was a fraud, that among other things he was a convicted swindler who was in a Colombian jail on the day one of the murder plot meetings supposedly took place.

Chávez's minister reacted by obtaining a court order prohibiting the media from reporting about Vásquez. Yet even outright censorship didn't work. In August one of the journalists, Laura Weffer of the newspaper El Nacional, tracked down and interviewed Vásquez, who broke with the government after he was charged in an unrelated case of domestic violence. A chagrined Rodriguez at last was forced to concede to the paper that he had been "deceived" by his witness.

He didn't, however, close the case. Charges are still pending against Poleo and the other opposition figures. "In any democratic country this would be over," says Maria Angelica Correa, another journalist who helped expose the government's fraud and who explained the case to me earlier this month.

"What this shows is that an independent judiciary is essential in a democratic country. And we don't have that. What we have is a man who is determined to monopolize power."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company