December 03, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Caracas' new mayor, a leading opponent of President Hugo Chavez, says he wants to battle crime, trash and potholes - the issues that pushed this sprawling, chaotic capital to make a shift to opposition rule.
Antonio Ledezma is offering to work with his longtime adversary as he prepares to be sworn in later this week.
But Chavez is focused on the strikes, protests and brief coup d'etat he endured in 2002, the last time the city had an opposition mayor. He has warned Ledezma and other opponents not to try to undermine his government - or they could see tanks in the streets.
Increasing conflict seems inevitable. Yet the gray-haired, bespectacled mayor-elect still says both sides can work together on cleaning up Caracas.
"We need to have the skin of a crocodile to endure any provocation - not shoot from the hip," Ledezma told The Associated Press in an interview last week. "But if we establish some rules of the game, and we obey those rules of the game, I think we can live together."
With a reputation among supporters as a shrewd administrator and tenacious activist, Ledezma, 53, has led or attended just about every anti-Chavez protest march.
He was among the politicians who successfully rallied voters last year to defeat Chavez's first attempt to do away with term limits and keep running for office. Now that Chavez is preparing a second try, Ledezma is likely to be an obstacle.
The new mayor insists he's never had a hand in any anti-government plot. Still, Chavez says he's closely watching him and other opposition mayors.
"I hope they prove me wrong," Chavez said in one speech. "But I don't believe them - absolutely nothing at all. They're coming to try to overthrow my government. They're going to try to use police forces, the people's money, to hatch a conspiracy once again."
Ledezma, a former congressman, governor and mayor of Caracas' Libertador district, strikes a contrast in many ways to the crusading and confrontational socialist leader, starting with his monogrammed shirts and lawyerly demeanor.
But his deep voice booms while speaking to supporters, outlining his plans to attract private investment, force cars off the road one day a week and make Caracas more livable. His promises drew an emotional ovation last week from supporters who chanted: "He's back!"
After the speech, Ledezma explained his plans from the passenger seat of an SUV stuck in traffic. "You see that woman in that car? No matter how fancy that car may be, she doesn't get any peace," he said. "Caracas needs peace."
Chavez's allies held on to a strong majority in the Nov. 23 state and local elections, winning 17 of 22 gubernatorial races. But the opposition picked up key governors' offices that together represent more than 40 percent of Venezuela's 28 million people. And the Caracas area, with about 5 million residents, swung largely toward the opposition.
Ledezma took the top job formerly held by a Chavez ally, while the opposition picked up three of four district mayo
Many voters who chose Chavez opponents cited trash-strewn streets, inefficient city services and rampant violent crime.
Ledezma has been conciliatory, promising to work with neighborhood "communal councils" the president has set up.
But Chavez's government has decreased the influence of the Caracas mayor in recent months, perhaps partly in anticipation of an opposition victory. It stripped the Caracas mayor's office of its police force earlier this year, bringing officers under a new national force.