Expanding Power Puts Family of Venezuelan President Under Increasing
New York Times
February 18, 2007
Ver traducción al español en sección Imagen de Chávez
SABANETA, Venezuela, Feb. 13 — At the entrance to this dusty town where Hugo Chávez was born in 1954, a billboard welcomes visitors with a gleaming image of Mr. Chávez, the president, and the words, "Cradle of the Revolution."
Other billboards and posters throughout Sabaneta show Mr. Chávez embracing his younger brother Aníbal, Sabaneta"s mayor, and his father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, the governor of Barinas, the surrounding state. Such reminders of the power amassed by Mr. Chávez"s family have been ubiquitous here since he ascended to the presidency eight years ago.
From a humble start in a dirt-floored adobe home that was bulldozed to make way for a hamburger stand, the family"s widening political clout has been increasingly scrutinized as critics call attention to abuses of power and corruption charges throughout the institutions now controlled by Mr. Chávez, including the National Assembly, the Supreme Court and the federal bureaucracy. Revelations of corruption under his family"s watch in Barinas and accusations of nepotism have dogged Mr. Chávez even as he makes combating such irregularities one of the priorities of his government.
"We call them the royal family of Barinas," said Antonio Bastidas, 46, an opposition politician in Barinas who grew up playing baseball and catching catfish with Mr. Chávez and his brothers. "They started out with nothing and now call themselves revolutionaries, though they are revolutionaries with all the best trappings of power."
Mr. Bastidas and others in the political opposition in Barinas have filed numerous complaints of corruption and mismanagement against the administration of Mr. Chávez"s father, a retired primary-school teacher universally known in Barinas as "maestro," or professor. Many of the accusations have languished in Venezuela"s byzantine bureaucracy, while Mr. Chávez"s family and its supporters in Barinas have repeatedly won strong victories in elections.
"I"m here because the people put me here," Mayor Aníbal Chávez, 50, said in an interview at his office, seated under portraits of the president, the Caracas-born liberation hero Simón Bolívar and Jesus. "We are recuperating our love of the fatherland, contrary to the policy of the empire, which is to enslave us," he said, referring to the United States.
"Sabaneta is booming," he said, listing state-financed projects here like asphalt and tomato-processing plants and a huge sugarcane-growing venture carried out with the assistance of dozens of advisers flown in from Cuba. "I"m a dreamer, but I believe we are transforming this municipality into something greater."
One effort intended to lift Sabaneta from obscurity, the Venezuelan-Cuban sugarcane project, has been particularly embarrassing for President Chávez. He became enraged last year after investigators uncovered a $1.5 million embezzlement scheme at the sugar-processing complex, which is named in honor of Ezequiel Zamora, a general who fought in one of Venezuela"s bloody 19th-century internal wars.
Investigators have not implicated any of Mr. Chávez"s five brothers or his father in the scandal, though it unfolded shortly after Aníbal was elected mayor and seven years into the administration of his father, who has fended off corruption accusations almost since his first election victory in 1998.
"May God forgive me for what I"m about to say, but in cases like this, I swear to you, if I could order someone to be executed, I would order him executed," President Chávez said last year when the scandal surfaced.
Mr. Chávez, who is twice divorced, vigilantly guards the privacy of his children and former wives. A court fined an opposition newspaper, Tal Cual, and an editorial writer this week for publishing an editorial imagining a dialogue about political subjects between Mr. Chávez and his youngest daughter, Rosinés. But his father and siblings, all public figures in Barinas, have been open to scrutiny.
The family boasts not only a mayor and a governor, but also the secretary of state for Barinas, a post created for the president"s brother Argenis, who carries out many day-to-day functions at the governor"s palace. Another brother, Adelis, is a senior banker at Banco Sofitasa, which does brisk business with the state government. Adelis also supervises the government"s construction of a new soccer stadium in Barinas.
His brother Narciso, an English teacher who lived in Ohio for several years, was accused of influence peddling in the state government after he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Bolívar, a municipality near Sabaneta. He was later placed in important posts at Venezuela"s embassies in Canada and Cuba, where he was put in charge of overseeing the various bilateral agreements reached between Fidel Castro and Mr. Chávez.
Adán, the eldest brother of Mr. Chávez, who was the second-born son, is perhaps the most influential of the president"s brothers, serving as ambassador to Cuba, private secretary to the president and, most recently, minister of education.
Adán, the president and Aníbal, the three oldest sons, are in their 50s; the younger sons are in their 40s.
Residents of Barinas, a state of cattle ranches, palm trees and pickup trucks that resembles stretches of South Texas, are treated almost monthly to tales of largess within Mr. Chávez"s family, some substantiated, and some not.
They point to the frequent trips to Cuba of their governor, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, for medical treatment, a luxury out of reach for many Venezuelans. Through a spokesman, the governor declined repeated requests for an interview.
The governor, who is in his 70s, has long been a fixture in state politics in Barinas, where for decades he was a loyal organizer for Copei, a conservative political party. From his schoolteacher origins, he rose to become director of education programs for Barinas during the early 1980s. Now he travels throughout Barinas in a caravan of sport-utility vehicles led by a police escort, a rarity in provincial Venezuela.
Opposition politicians here say that Mr. Chávez"s mother, Elena, who also started as a teacher, exemplifies the family"s rise to the nouveau riche class. She now appears in newspaper photographs carrying her poodle, Coqui, and dressed in designer outfits and gold jewelry. Her plastic surgeon, Bruno Pacillo, went to the National Assembly in 2004 to complain that he was barred from an elite Caracas social club, presumably because of his connection to Mr. Chávez"s family.
Some claims that the family lives large off the state seem surreal. For instance, the newspaper La Razón published a column last month saying that Argenis, the secretary of state, had come into possession of a gray bulletproof Hummer, one of several such vehicles that can be seen roaming the streets of Sabaneta, the state capital, these days.
The column said that the president, during a visit over the Christmas holiday to the family"s ranch in Barinas, tried teaching Argenis a lesson in revolutionary values by ramming the vehicle with a tractor. An official in the Barinas state government who was with the Chávez family over the holidays said the entire story was "a lie."
The family ranch near Sabaneta, called La Chavera, has been a frequent source of scrutiny for the political opposition, which contends that the family"s landholdings there and elsewhere in Barinas have grown from a small area to more than 7,000 acres in the past eight years, according to "Hugo Chávez Without His Uniform," a biography of the president by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka.
The governor, who has a salary of about $2,000 a month, has emphatically denied any misappropriation of funds during his administration. Investigations of corruption allegations in the state Legislature were suspended after the president"s supporters won all of the seats in the most recent election. The governor appears to be tiring of the persistent criticism of his administration in the local news media.
"Prepare yourselves," the governor warned his critics in the media and the political opposition in December after his son won a re-election bid for president by a wide margin, "for what is coming is going to be ugly."
While a vocal opposition to the president and his family persists, it is clear that many people in his hometown still adore him.
"Hugo was always a serious type of guy, but I never imagined he"d go so far," said Miguel Torres González, 55, a rancher and board member of the state sugar complex in Sabaneta who grew up with Mr. Chávez and his brothers.
"He always expressed his political philosophy as if he were writing poetry," said Mr. Torres, pointing to an flowery inscription in a book given to him by Mr. Chávez in 1986 about Maisanta, a rebel in Venezuela"s backlands whom the president says was his great-grandfather. "We are extremely proud of him."
Similarly, Pilar Becerra, 50, the owner of a store selling sewing supplies near the spot where Mr. Chávez was born, rejected claims that his family had grown too powerful, pointing to the example set by the president of donating part of his salary to a scholarship fund for poor students.
His supporters here, along with Aníbal, questioned Mr. Chávez"s refusal to allow a museum to be built in his honor on the trash-strewn lot where the family"s adobe house once stood.
"The love of the people for my brother is so strong," Aníbal said over cups of the sweet coffee that is a staple of almost any visit here. "We"d like to honor him with this project, but he still doesn"t want it."