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Chavez continues to consolidate power

The Americas Post - Without Leopoldo Lopez, who else can run against Chavez? Photo: Al Dia

This week opponents of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez suffered from a one-two punch: a court decision handicapping the presidential aspirations of a major candidate, followed by a $2 million fine that threatens the closure of an anti-government TV channel.

Both rulings by the Supreme Court and National Telecommunications Commission have outraged opposition leaders and human rights activists, who say judges and government regulators blatantly act as agents of the president by singling out his enemies for harassment.

The sanctions against candidate Leopoldo Lopez and the Globovision TV station look suspiciously like a crackdown on critics, as Chavez readies his re-election campaign after completing chemotherapy for cancer.

“The government is trying to show it is firmly in control and can play offense, even at a time when questions are being raised about Chavez’s vulnerability in next year’s elections,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue in Washington DC.

“Chavez wants to depict Lopez and Globovision as symbols of the old, discredited political order,” he said. “The aim is to rally his political base of hard core Chavistas, to prepare for the election campaign.”

The Chavez administration and their supporters deny such allegations.

The telecommunications agency’s chief, Pedro Maldonado, said Globovision is being fined the equivalent of more than $2.1 million for violating broadcast regulations by airing interviews with family members of inmates during a prolonged prison rebellion.

Maldonado accused Globovision of playing such interviews approximately 300 times and adding the sound of gunfire to some segments.

The TV station only has until Dec. 31 to pay, but owner Guillermo Zuloaga assured viewers this week that he will come up with the money.

Zuloaga denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the news channel is being penalized for coverage the government disliked.

“I think there’s no doubt that President Chavez fears the independent media,” Zuloaga said. “I want to watch him lose the elections.”

Zuloaga was interviewed by telephone from the United States, where he fled last year after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant on charges of usury and conspiracy for storing 24 new vehicles at a home he owns. Zuloaga, who also owns several car dealerships, calls the charges false and accuses prosecutors of merely doing Chavez’s bidding.

Last year Globovision became Venezuela’s only surviving anti-Chavez TV channel when another station, RCTV, was forced off cable and satellite TV after the government refused to renew its broadcast license.

If it can remain on the air, Globovision will be a vital soapbox for opposition leaders in the next presidential campaign.

Also this week, the Venezuelan Supreme Court upheld a decision by the country’s top anti-corruption official banning Leopoldo Lopez from public office until 2014 following alleged irregularities.

Opposition politicians accuse the authorities of fabricating corruption accusations against enemies while ignoring corruption within the government. International watchdog group Transparency International currently rates Venezuela among the most corrupt countries in its annual index.

Manuel Rosales, Chavez’s main rival in the 2006 presidential election, was forced into exile in 2009 when prosecutors accused him of corruption.

Lopez is one of about 1,300 officials disqualified from office over the past 11 years due to corruption, said acting Comptroller General Adelina Gonzalez.

A former Caracas mayor, Lopez was sanctioned for multiple accusations, including funneling donations from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, where he and his mother worked, to a non-profit organization he was involved with.

Lopez has denied any wrongdoing and notes he was never sentenced by any court.

“They’re wrong if they think we’re going to kneel before their attempts to take our rights away from us,” he told supporters this week. “This is a fight for our rights.”

The Supreme Court overruled a Sept. 1 decision by the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which said Lopez’s political rights had been violated and instructed Venezuela to let him run for office.

The Supreme Court upheld the prohibition on Lopez holding office, yet said he would be free to run if he chooses.

Lopez said that “confusing decision” leaves a threat hanging over his candidacy. Prosecutors also said criminal investigations against him remain open.