Venezuela's Chávez Sets Up Obstacles for Opponents Who Won in Fall Elections

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 12, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela, Feb. 11 -- In November, Antonio Ledezma, a well-known opponent of the Venezuelan government, defeated President Hugo Chávez's handpicked candidate for mayor of greater Caracas. It was a particularly bitter setback for Chávez, not just because city hall is such a prized post but because Ledezma is so reviled by the president and his backers.

But Ledezma, 53, was mistaken if he thought winning office would mean controlling a far-flung city apparatus. Armed supporters of the president, wearing the government's trademark red T-shirts, took over city hall and three other vital government buildings. Incoming municipal officials found offices ransacked, computer equipment pilfered and vehicles missing.

The officials also said they discovered that former mayor Juan Barreto had hired thousands of hard-line Chávez supporters -- not to work in city agencies but to proselytize for the president's so-called Bolivarian revolution, serve as bodyguards to pro-government lawmakers and function as shock troops to intimidate Chávez's foes.

On Sunday, in his second try in 14 months, Chávez is staging a referendum to ask Venezuelans to permit him to run for a third six-year term in 2012. But Ledezma's introduction to the president's brand of bare-knuckle politics underscores just how far the populist firebrand will go to retain his grip on power.

"Ledezma won city hall, and the votes he received are worth as much as those for Hugo Chávez," said Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and government critic. "Taking over city hall and various offices of the mayor, expelling people and preventing workers from entering is not just a violation but a clear case of not recognizing electoral results favorable to Antonio Ledezma."

Until last week, the three-story neoclassic building in Caracas known as the Municipal Palace was covered in graffiti. Windows were shattered, and the front door was padlocked. Messages spray-painted on the outer walls read "Ledezma fascist" and "This is Chavista territory."

One slogan in particular summed up the power struggle here: "We are bad losers."

"In sports terminology, we won the game, but the sports authorities decided we did not win, that we had lost," said Carlos Melo, director of the city's athletic facilities, many of which were transferred to federal control days before the election. "They kept the installations. They took over the buildings and the offices. It is a violation of the elemental norms of the democratic game. Everywhere else, whoever loses gives in."

In Ledezma, the government faces one of its most strident opponents. A former governor and mayor, the raspy-voiced leader has spent years publicly comparing Chávez's government to Fidel Castro's Communist regime in Cuba and has lobbied for a boycott of elections.

Speaking on state television Tuesday, Chávez said Ledezma and other opposition politicians elected in November had assumed their new posts accompanied by violent mobs. He said they had sacked workers at random, part of what he called a plot that could lead to his own ouster.

"They want me off the map -- check to the king," Chávez said.

Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami said this week that Ledezma had simply abandoned his mayoral post. "He has not gone to work," El Aissami said at a news conference. "He is dedicated to other things other than what he was elected to do." El Aissami said that there had been no takeover of city buildings but that "a labor conflict" was roiling municipal politics because Ledezma was firing thousands of workers.

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