October 11, 2008
Venezuelan Disqualified Along With Other Chávez Foes Campaigns for Those Remaining
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Young and photogenic, Leopoldo López has been running the campaign of his political life, rummaging for votes here amid a warren of crowded slums and as far away as Venezuela's lawless western frontier. Polls show that the politician has won a strong following by promising a sharp change from the populist government of President Hugo Chávez, who after nearly a decade in office pulls virtually all the levers of power in the hemisphere's biggest oil power.
In next month's state and local elections, López had been positioned to claim what is considered the second-most important political post in the country -- mayor of greater Caracas, the bustling, chaotic capital. But López, 37, is no longer campaigning for himself. Instead, he is stumping on behalf of allies nationwide who are running against the amply funded candidates of the governing United Socialist Party in the Nov. 23 vote.
The Harvard-trained technocrat, who is as comfortable gabbing with barrio dwellers as he is with stuffy bankers, has been disqualified along with other opposition candidates who posed a challenge in some of Venezuela's most important states.
To many here, the disqualifications appear politically motivated. Among Chávez critics, they underscore the lengths to which the pugnacious, 54-year-old former army colonel will go to ensure he holds all the reins of power and implements his socialist model.
"It is a deceptive mechanism that violates not just the right to be elected, but the right to elect," said Luis Miquilena, a former interior minister who was once a mentor to Chávez but has since broken with him. "This is not just an infringement of the rights of the person who is running for office, but it is also an infringement of the rights of the voter."
The president's backers already control all but seven seats in the National Assembly, as well as the Supreme Court, the Central Bank, the electoral board and all of the government's internal affairs agencies. Though Chávez lost a referendum last December that would have expanded his powers, the president and his followers say success in the November elections will permit him to find other ways to take his revolution into overdrive. It is vital, the president has said, for his associates to win the governorships of all 23 states and the leadership of several key municipalities to deliver what he calls "a splendiferous triumph."
López, by campaigning for fellow opposition leaders, is hoping to block that effort. "Our challenge is to build up a protest vote so that those Venezuelans who wanted to vote for us vote for the alternative candidate," said López, currently mayor of the affluent Chacao district of Caracas.
Earlier this year, the state controller general, Clodosbaldo Russián, a close Chávez ally empowered to conduct internal investigations, disqualified dozens of political candidates. Then in August, the Supreme Court upheld the decision.
Angelina González, the sub-controller general, said in an interview that the decisions to disqualify were made on legal grounds after long probes in which investigators did not even know the political affiliation of those they were investigating.
She said that in López's case, administrative hearings were held and it was determined that he had used budgeted funds in Chacao to cover unrelated municipal costs. González also said that in 1998 López's mother, then the public affairs manager for the state oil company, oversaw the allocation of a donation to a civil group to which he belonged.
"He has planted the idea that it is political persecution," González said. "That is false, it is completely false." She said the controller also disqualified many of the president's allies.
Still, the Venezuelan constitution and a hemisphere-wide human rights treaty to which Venezuela is a signatory say a politician can lose the right to run for office only after being convicted of a crime. Constitutional experts say the flouting of the constitution, coupled with the fact that the disqualified candidates were prominent, demonstrates that the exclusions were politically motivated.
"The point is not if more of them were with the government or more of them were in the opposition," said Carlos Correa, director of Public Space, a Caracas policy group that monitors free-speech issues. "What is clear is that they took away the candidates from the opposition who had big possibilities."
The Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis had López besting the government's candidate for greater Caracas, Aristóbulo Istúriz, 56 percent to 34 percent in a July poll.
Other leading candidates were also sidelined, including Enrique Mendoza, who was angling for the governorship of populous Miranda state, where Caracas is located, and gubernatorial candidates for other key states such as Tachira and Anzoategui. Currently, opposition figures control only two states, Zulia and Nueva Esparta.
Luis Vicente León, a pollster with Datanalysis, a Caracas firm, said polls showed that the opposition had been poised to win a minimum of seven states. "Chávez had a tough challenge," León said. "There were seven states that he could lose, so what does he do? He reacts."
There is little doubt that the election is shaping up to be one of the most important
for the president, who was stung when voters delivered his first electoral defeat last December in turning back the broad constitutional reform he had proposed. In a recent speech to hundreds of pro-government candidates in a Caracas sports complex, Chávez spoke about the need to win -- and he recalled a recent conversation with his close ally, former president Fidel Castro of Cuba.
"Our people have to achieve a resounding triumph so I, a humble soldier -- as Fidel, my political father says -- can put it into third and fourth gear and accelerate the revolution," Chávez said.
The president's man in Caracas, Istúriz, is considered one of his closest, most loyal allies. A former education minister who has also held a variety of other posts in recent years, Istúriz said in an interview that he never saw López as a rival for the mayor's seat. "I was never campaigning against Leopoldo López," he said. "We have political goals here, and that is what is at play. For those political goals, you need men who best express those objectives and the will of the people."
On the surface, López's background would appear to be a handicap in a country like Venezuela, where the government's working-class base is frequently whipped into a frenzy against the upper classes. López, a wiry man with a shock of black hair and a winning smile, comes from one of Venezuela's wealthiest families. He rose to prominence as one of the leaders of a protest movement that ended in a brief coup on April 11, 2002.
Susana Zambrano, a voter who strongly supports the government, said López "should be imprisoned because he is one of those responsible for April 11."
But López has blunted such criticism and developed into a formidable campaigner, hammering away on issues such as rampant crime and inflation -- serious problems that most affect the poor. He has also cultivated support among members of the U.S. Congress and in countries that have close ties to Venezuela, such as Spain and Colombia.
He admits being demoralized by his exclusion from the upcoming race. But López said that he remains optimistic, and that the government's move against him and other politicians is a sign of weakness. "We ask why they did it, and the reason is fear," he said. "Fear that we can win an election, that there can be change, that the poorest sectors start having hope and faith in an alternative."