CARACAS, Venezuela — Fresh from winning a referendum that could allow him to remain as president until 2018 and perhaps for life, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is sidelining his enemies, stifling criticism and concentrating more power in his own hands.
Maracaibo Mayor Manuel Rosales, Chavez's opponent in the 2006 presidential election, has had to seek political asylum in Peru to avoid being arrested on charges of stealing public funds.
Security agents with guns drawn arrested former Gen. Raul Isaias Baduel, who went from being Chavez's defense minister to his fiercest foe within the armed forces, also on corruption charges.
A compliant Venezuelan Congress has taken away 96 percent of the budget of newly elected Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma.
Next up before the Congress is a measure that would allow the president to snatch power from the nation's governors and appoint regional "vice presidents" to oversee the governors.
His critics charge that he's creating an autocratic state with democratic trappings.
"The increasing power of the executive branch," Venezuela's Roman Catholic bishops said in a statement last month, "puts the democratic system at risk of collapse." The statement added: "Those in power are taking decisions that are on the margin or are against the spirit and letter of the Constitution."
Congressman Oswaldo Vera, a Chavez ally, said the creation of regional vice presidents is needed to coordinate development away from cities to sparsely populated areas of Venezuela.
Opponents and independent analysts say it's a flimsy excuse for another Chavez power grab.
The real purpose is "to give Chavez the power to do whatever he wants across the country," said Ismael Garcia, a member of Congress who leads the opposition Podemos political party.
Chavez thinks that governors, even those of his own part, act too independently, said Caracas-based pollster Luis Vicente Leon. The president repeatedly has complained that governors act like "little kings."
Congress in late March took authority over airports and seaports from the governors and gave these entities — and their ability to collect tariffs and tolls — to Chavez.
A charismatic leader who's showered billions of dollars on the poor, Chavez enjoys enviable public support after 10 tumultuous years in power. He had a 59 percent approval rating in March, according to Leon.
Venezuelan voters strengthened his clout in February by approving a referendum that would allow Chavez to seek another six-year term in 2012. If he wins, he could run for re-election in 2018 and every six years thereafter.
In the meantime, the Congress is moving forward with another measure, this one to tighten government control over nonprofit groups in Venezuela that receive assistance from abroad. Under the proposal, foreign donations would go to the Venezuelan treasury.
The government says funneling foreign donations through the treasury would improve oversight of the groups. Opponents say the measure is similar to one approved in Russia and is aimed at keeping money away from human-rights organizations and other groups that criticize Chavez.
Vera rejected suggestions that Chavez is overstepping his bounds. He noted that the country holds regular elections, and that Chavez faces fierce criticism in the press.
Many analysts, however, think that Venezuela is beginning to resemble Peru in the 1990s under President Alberto Fujimori. Peru held elections, but Fujimori ran roughshod over the country's constitution, controlled most media outlets and repressed the opposition to extend his stay in power. He's now serving a six-year prison term.
"Chavez's objective is to get rid of his adversaries and strengthen his control," said Fausto Maso, a Caracas-based radio commentator and political columnist. "He is an autocratic leader who looks for a legal justification for whatever he does."
He's also targeting the news media.
Chavez gained near control over the airwaves last year when he refused to renew the license of RCTV, which regularly excoriated him.
Chavez and the Congress are threatening to shut down Globovision, a cable station that's the last remaining television news outlet that rankles the president.
"The leaders of the opposition have no access to the government's (TV and radio stations)," said German Carrera-Damas, Venezuela's most prominent historian. "Newspapers that publish critical articles of the president have low circulation."
Venezuela's opposition has yet to mount a meaningful protest.
Anti-Chavez unions organized a march in Caracas on May 1, International Labor Day. Police broke it up with tear gas and rubber bullets.
University student leaders, who've organized massive street protests against Chavez during the past two years, have yet to be heard.
Ledezma has yet to be cowed. He's objected repeatedly to Congress' decision to distribute his power and duties to other mayors who're allied with Chavez and to a newly-appointed "vice president" for Caracas appointed by Chavez.
Ledezma was elected mayor in November with 720,000 votes.
His protests, however, have been in vain. Police tear-gassed the Caracas mayor and a group of supporters as they approached the Congress on foot in an attempt to deliver a letter of complaint.
"Chavez has sent a clear signal with Rosales, Baduel and Ledezma that if anyone challenges him, they will be destroyed politically or imprisoned," Leon said. "He is intimidating everyone."
Chavez's hardcore supporters, who comprise about 30 percent of the electorate, reject suggestions that he's persecuting his political enemies.
"Rosales enriched himself in office and has preferred to flee rather than be tried under Venezuela's justice system," said Mario Isea, a Chavez supporter in Congress.
However, Wilmer Azuaje, a onetime Chavista-turned-foe in Congress, said the government is prosecuting only its enemies.
Azuaje has presented a thick file of documents alleging that Chavez's father and brothers have been buying ranches and townhouses with government money in their native Barinas state.
The government hasn't pursued the case.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009