CARACAS, Venezuela — A leading opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez skipped a court appearance Monday to avoid being tried on corruption charges and instead is seeking asylum abroad to escape what he charges is a trumped-up case and political persecution.
Manuel Rosales, the mayor of Maracaibo and Chavez's opponent in the 2006 presidential election, can't receive a fair trial, Omar Barboza, the president of Rosales' political party, said Monday, in explaining why Rosales chose to remain in hiding.
According to Barboza and other critics of Chavez, the government plans to imprison Rosales as part of a broader crackdown by the president against his political adversaries after winning a national referendum in February that fortified his hand.
"Chavez is trying to capitalize by sidelining his opponents," said Saul Cabrera, a Caracas-based pollster, as a weakening economy is expected to cut into his popularity.
Chavez's approach "is much bolder than what I expected it would be," said Javier Corrales, a visiting scholar at Harvard who closely follows Venezuela.
It was 17 days ago that a military judge jailed Raul Isaias Baduel, who until he resigned as defense minister in 2007 had been part of Chavez's inner circle. A fierce Chavez foe since then, Baduel is charged with stealing $19 million in public funds, which he denies.
The Chavez-controlled Congress has stripped power from Antonio Ledezma, who in November was elected as mayor of metro Caracas, the country's second most important political position.
The Congress has transferred 90 percent of Ledezma's budget and powers to the federal government and other mayors allied with Chavez.
The government also is threatening to shut down Globovision, the only television station remaining that takes a critical look at Chavez.
"We've become a pebble in the shoe for the president," said Alberto Ravell, Globovision's general manager and co-owner. "There's no division of power in Venezuela. Everything depends on the finger of Chavez."
Chavez and his supporters insist that the developments are unrelated and don't come at the president's direction.
Congressman Mario Isea, a leading member of Chavez's party, showed documents on the state television channel Monday that he said proved that Rosales had enriched himself in office. Investigators said that Rosales couldn't explain why his declared worth at one point was $66,000 less than what his bank accounts showed later. Rosales has held office since 1996 either as mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second biggest city, or as governor of Zulia state.
The accusations against Rosales are contained in a 21-page report prepared by Venezuela's national fiscal auditor.
Rosales' supporters note that late last year Chavez said he was "determined to put Manuel Rosales in jail" and also threatened to "wipe (Rosales) from the political map." The mayor went into hiding three weeks ago.
Rosales' supporters organized a rally of support in Maracaibo Monday morning.
"Today, they are going after me," said Evelyn Trejo de Rosales, the mayor's wife. "Tomorrow, it could be you."
In Caracas, meanwhile, riot police wearing body armor lined up to block reporters from entering the courthouse that was hearing proceedings against her husband.
Riot police also tried to block Ledezma, the Caracas mayor, from entering the national election court during a tense scene on Friday.
Ledezma wanted to ask election authorities to allow voters in Caracas to decide whether he should be allowed to govern with the full powers he had upon his election.
With hundreds of his supporters chanting, "Democracy, yes! Dictatorship, no!" Ledezma and several of his supporters pushed through the riot police to enter the election office.
Afterward, Ledezma held up a small copy of the country's constitution and told reporters over the din of his shouting supporters that he blamed Chavez for stripping his powers.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009