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Chavez foes struggle in face of clampdown
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 09 - 09 - 2009

FOR six months, a prison cell holding three generals and one latrine has been home to Raul Isaias Baduel, once Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's savior, now dubbed a traitor by his former friend.
Defense minister and close Chavez ally until two years ago, Baduel now shares his cell with two other generals accused of conspiracy. He has become a symbol of how the left-wing president neutralizes opponents who threaten him politically.
“I won't be leaving here until Chavez leaves the presidency,” the graying 54-year-old told Reuters in his cell, sitting beside a photo of the youngest of his 12 children.
Chavez remains popular and has won numerous elections during a decade governing one of the world's top oil suppliers. But this year, the former soldier is consolidating his power with a clampdown against local media and the opposition, which won some important states and cities in elections in 2008.
Although Venezuela will hold multiparty legislative elections in 2010 and presidential elections in 2012, some Chavez critics say he wants to create a single-party system.
The measures against his rivals help keep them divided ahead of next year's vote for new lawmakers, allowing the president to power ahead with laws that further his goal of turning Venezuela into a Socialist state.
The country's most visible leader, former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, fled corruption charges in April and now lives in Peru. while Mayor of Caracas Antonio Ledezma had much of his budget and power stripped by Chavez loyalists soon after he was elected in November.
Other opposition officials have legal cases hanging over them, a presidential hopeful is barred from elections and a group of Caracas municipal workers were jailed after August protests. “It is a very difficult moment in Venezuela, we have seen critical times before, very hard, but never a transformation like this,” said Venezuelan political risk analyst Claudia Curiel, referring to Chavez's radicalization this year.
The government says all the people are being processed for breaking the law, not for their political beliefs and Venezuela is still far from a violently repressive state of the kind common in Latin America a generation ago.
Anti-government television station Globovision faces a string of investigations and threats to close it down while local radio stations are under investigation.
These measures came after a score of nationalizations of the oil and other industries as part of an acceleration of Chavez's revolution.
“Sectors of the opposition talk about peace and democracy, but they don't believe in it. The Venezuelan opposition wants violence,” Chavez said in August. Just over two years ago, Baduel was still considered a hero of Chavez's “revolution,” having helped reverse a coup that ousted the president for 48 hours in 2002.
But he incurred the wrath of his former comrade-in-arms by breaking with the government and calling Chavez power-hungry over a proposed constitutional reform aimed at increasing Chavez powers to overhaul Venezuela's laws and stay in office.
He was accused of misusing $14 million of army funds and was arrested in April after failing to show up in court and was sent to the Ramo Verde military jail.
The clampdown has compounded problems for the opposition, which is fragmented between half a dozen parties and leaders. Even though the president's popularity ratings have slid several points this year to about 50 percent, none of his opponents has even 10 percent support.
Venezuelans will vote in December next year for deputies in the National Assembly, where Chavez allies hold a huge majority. Already some former Chavez loyalists have broken away and opponents hope to gain more seats in the legislature. But bitter infighting over lists of candidates for the elections has caused deeper splits within and between parties, with more division over how to respond to Chavez's policies.
Protests have grown against a new education law that will give Chavez greater control in schools and universities, and the government has often been intolerant of disturbances on marches, liberally using tear-gas and arresting troublemakers.
After one march against the education law that ended in scuffles between police and protesters in August, Attorney General Luisa Ortega said that anybody who upset the peace or public order would be prosecuted, in comments critics say are an attack on the right to protest.
Ortega is one of the most hardline figures in the government and this year unsuccessfully proposed a law that could have jailed journalists. She said unruly protests will be considered “civil rebellion,” a crime carrying a maximum 24-year sentence.
Her statements could lead to a conviction for Ricardo Blanco, who works in Ledezma's office and was jailed on charges of attacking a policeman at a protest. Eleven other workers in the same office were jailed after another protest in August.


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