TACARIGUA, Venezuela (AP) -- The razor-close vote to replace late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has sparked what opposition leaders and human rights groups say is a government crackdown on public employees who either didn't back Chavez's hand-picked successor or failed to show sufficient support for the ruling party.
The April 14 election had revealed a major shift in public support away from the Chavez program as problems such as food shortages, soaring inflation and crime, as well as the absence of the late leader's famous charm, led hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans to back the opposition for the first time since Chavez took power 14 years ago. It was an ominous start for successor Nicolas Maduro's government, which is struggling to write the second chapter of the country's socialist transformation amid deepening economic problems and widening divisions in a bureaucracy and public that once solidly backed Chavez.
Several high-ranking government officials have openly discussed punishing political disloyalty among government employees. On top of that, the human rights wing of the coalition opposition headed by Gov. Henrique Capriles says it has received more than 300 complaints of people being fired from government jobs on suspicion of having voted for leading opposition presidential candidate Capriles, who lost to Maduro by only 1.8 percentage points in official results. Another 1,000 or so public workers have complained about intimidation from supervisors and threats of punishment for supporting the opposition, the opposition's rights office said.
Government officials did not respond to requests from The Associated Press for comment on the allegations, but some have told Venezuelan media that the charges are pure invention by the opposition and media outlets that back it.
Those denials, however, conflict with a video posted on YouTube Saturday showing Housing Minister Ricardo Molina meeting with apparent co-workers and demanding complete political loyalty despite a legal prohibition against sanctioning workers for their political beliefs.
"What the labor laws say doesn't matter to me at all," Molina exhorts, his voice soaring. "Zero tolerance. I don't accept that anyone bad-mouths the revolution, that anyone bad-mouths Nicolas."
He added: "They need to quit. Because if they don't quit I personally will fire them."
It was unclear whether the video was taken surreptitiously, but the person who posted it did not respond to an AP request via YouTube seeking comment. Molina's spokeswoman said Monday that his office would provide an official statement on the matter, but then did not, and did not answer repeated phone calls.
"It sounds like they are in some ways having difficulty holding it together, which is what you would expect with this weak showing of Maduro," said Maxwell Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia. "Chavez was so critical both to maintaining the discipline internally within his coalition while at the same time being able to appeal broadly to the electorate."
Odalis Monzon, a Chavista congresswoman in Vargas state just north of Caracas, said on Twitter she had started "looking through a magnifying glass" at people in her district, adding that aid will be cut to government workers found to have been challenging the election outcome -- including through pot-banging protests called by Capriles.
"The many who are here in the Social Missions and state institutions who are banging pots and pans, don't even ask for cocoa beans," read the Twitter account connected to her congressional webpage, using a colloquialism meaning that even the smallest request will be rejected.
Monzon's office was closed Monday, and she could not be reached to respond to requests for comment.
In another call to loyalty, Jose Rodriguez, secretary of a pro-government steelworkers union, appeared in another amateur online video calling for a blacklist similar to one created in 2004 by a Chavista congressman, Luis Tascon, that published the names of Venezuelans who supposedly signed a petition supporting a referendum that year seeking Chavez's resignation.
"Housecleaning! Housecleaning!" workers in the hall shout in the video.
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