/ 19 October 2009

Authoritarian drift

He saved Hugo Chavez when all seemed lost. A coup had ousted Venezuela’s president and buried, it seemed, his leftist experiment.

General Raul Baduel, however, stayed loyal and tilted the army Chavez’s way during tumultuous days in April 2002, paving the way for his return to power and restoring democracy.

A grateful Chavez hailed the general a hero and appointed him defence minister. They became close allies and confidants. Times change.

Baduel is now stripped of power and facing corruption charges that could keep him in jail for decades. Prosecutors say he pilfered state funds. Baduel says his crime was to realise — and declare — that the president was a tyrant.

‘Every day there is more repression, and Chavez’s mask slips further. The only thing he cares about is being president for life,” he said, seated at a desk in his cell. ‘This,” he said, tapping a pile of legal documents emblazoned with his name, ‘is a judicial farce.”

Since April Baduel has been kept at a military jail in Los Teques, outside Caracas. He is accused of corruption of more than the equivalent of R100-million, which allegedly disappeared during his tenure in government, a charge levelled after he broke with Chavez and joined opposition ranks. Baduel is not alone.

Criminal charges are multiplying against government opponents. Some are accused of corruption, others of public disorder during demonstrations. Some are in exile, others in jail pending trial.

Critics say the president is using the courts to neutralise his foes. ‘Given the way Chavez and his supporters have undermined the independence of the judiciary, it is difficult to have confidence in the fairness of the trials,” said Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch.

A tougher approach is already visible. Police, citing disorder, use tear gas to break up demonstrations. Twelve municipal workers were arrested during a protest over working conditions.

In the western state of Tachira an opposition governor, Cesar Perez Vivas, was charged after leading a rally that ended in scuffles with government supporters.

‘These charges are a tactic to intimidate and discourage people from protesting,” said Jackeline Sandoval of Fundepro, a human rights watchdog. The group says 38 people have been jailed for political reasons disguised as corruption or public disorder offences.

Manuel Rosales, an opposition leader and former presidential candidate, is among half a dozen exiles who have sought political asylum in Peru.

Criminal charges, along with blacklisting opposition candidates, usurping municipal power and closing 32 radio stations, mark a new phase in Chavez’s 10-year rule said one senior European diplomat.

‘We’ve gone from calling Venezuela an imperfect democracy to an authoritarian regime with democratic characteristics,” he said.

Former United States president Jimmy Carter, who has praised Chavez’s pro-poor policies and endorsed his electoral victories, recently voiced concern at the authoritarian drift. The government rejects such criticism as unfair.

Chavez has won successive elections and remains popular for spending oil revenue on social programmes. His supporters say the same elitist, antidemocratic forces that briefly ousted Chavez in 2002 — a coup endorsed by the administration of George W Bush — are again plotting his overthrow.

‘Behind these mobilisations there are dark forces,” Reinaldo Garcia, head of the National Assembly’s human rights commission, told the state news agency ABN. ‘We cannot allow them to block the streets and highways, much less burn tyres at strategic spots to provoke problems with the security forces.”

The attorney general , Luisa Ortega, a Chavez ally, said demonstrators seeking to destabilise the government would be charged with ‘civil rebellion”, which carries 12 to 24 years in jail.

Steve Ellner, a historian at Venezuela’s University of the East, said Chavez remained a democrat, not least because of electoral mandates. He noted, however, that courts overwhelmingly targeted opposition figures.

‘Chavez’s case would be much stronger if he went after corruption within his own government.” Arresting Baduel neutralised an opponent who could stir trouble in the army, and ‘obviously” had a political motivation, he said. —