March 26, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuela's National Assembly opened an investigation Wednesday into accusations that two of President Hugo Chavez's brothers acquired 17 ranches in recent years — if true, a potential stain on the image of Chavez's socialist movement.
Lawmaker Wilmer Azuaje arrived at the assembly to present documents containing his allegations before the congressional audit commission in a closed-door session.
Azuaje, of the president's socialist party, told the Venezuelan television channel Globovision on Tuesday that he has documents indicating Chavez's brothers Argenis and Narciso acquired 17 ranches through front men who carried out the transactions on their behalf.
The legislator said the haciendas are all located in Chavez's home state of Barinas, where the president's father is the elected governor.
There was no immediate reaction from Chavez's younger brothers or the president, who was traveling in Brazil.
Azuaje said he decided to call for the investigation because he feels the land acquisitions harm the image of Chavez's socialist movement. He said he also has asked prosecutors to open a separate investigation.
The purchase of some of the ranches — two of which are named La Malaguena and Los Cocos, respectively — raise questions about where the money came from, he said.
Azuaje said one Chavez family employee by the name of Izarra should be investigated to determine how he managed to buy a single ranch valued at $372,000, El Universal reported in its Wednesday editions.
The National Assembly has been almost completely pro-Chavez since the opposition boycotted 2005 congressional elections. The single-house legislature approved the investigation's launch on Tuesday, said National Assembly President Cilia Flores, a close ally of the president.
"The healthiest thing" is to investigate Azuaje's claims and what may be behind them, Flores said, according to El Universal.
Lawmakers will investigate not only the president's brothers, but also Azuaje's activities, she said.
Flores called Azuaje's accusations part of campaigning ahead of state and local elections in November.
"I know you're candidate for governor," she said.