Venezuela: Chávez sends army to seize airports, seaports

Venezuela’s military has taken control of key airports and seaports under the terms of a move approved by the National Assembly a week ago. President Hugo Chávez called the move an effort at “reunifying the motherland, which was in pieces.” Critics call it a power grab aimed at undercutting state and local leaders who oppose Chávez’s rule.

State governments in Venezuela have controlled the country’s airports, sea ports and highways since a move towards decentralization was instated 20 years ago. The new measure reverses this, and also prohibits states and municipalities from collecting tariffs or tolls at transportation hubs or on highways. Chávez announced March 21: “Since this morning we began to reverse the disintegration of national unity.” Among the seized facilities are maritime terminals in the opposition stronghold city of Maracaibo, in restive Zulia state; the port of Guanta in Anzoategui; and others in the states of Carabobo and Nueva Esparta. (BBC News, AlJazeera, March 22)

The seizure comes with other initiatives aimed at strengthening federal control. Antonio Ledezma, elected as mayor of Caracas on an opposition ticket last November, could soon find himself reporting to a specially created vice president for the capital city, appointed directly by Chávez. The apparent front-runner for the job is none other than the man Ledezma defeated in November—Aristóbulo Istúriz of the ruling United Socialist Party.

The proposed move has sparked protest in Caracas. “On Nov. 23, the voters elected their mayor. You can’t have, on top of that, an official who’s not legitimate because he wasn’t elected by the people,” Máximo Sánchez, chair of the Caracas city council, told the opposition TV station Globovisión. Government spokesmen defend the new policy, saying that Chávez’s model of “revolutionary” decentralization redistributes power to the people, rather than to what the president has called “little republics” led by regional strongmen. (Miami Herald, March 18)

Chávez also took a step closer to his stated goal of putting his former rival for the presidency, Manuel Rosales, behind bars. A prosecutor in Zulia said she would request an arrest warrant for Rosales, the state’s former governor, who in November was elected mayor of Maracaibo, the state capital. The charge is “illicit enrichment.”

Rosales, who ran against Chávez in the December 2006 presidential election, winning just less than 40% of the vote, said the arrest warrant was “an order from Chávez,” and that he would fight it on all fronts. The arrest order now goes to a judge for a hearing within the next three weeks. If convicted, Rosales could face 10 years in prison.

In the abortive coup d’etat of April 2002, then-governor Rosales signed the notorious decree issued by the de facto president, Pedro Carmona, dissolving all branches of government but the executive. Restored to power after the coup collapsed, Chávez has never forgiven Rosales for what he considers an act of treachery. (Miami Herald, March 21)

The centralization moves also come two weeks after Chávez sent army troops to seize rice processors, accusing them of illegally profiteering at the expense of Venezuela’s poor majority.

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