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Venezuela's opposition ground down by Chavistas

Friday - 3/15/2013, 12:59pm  ET

Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro gestures to people at the opening of the Ninth International Book Fair of Venezuela (Filven) which pays tribute to late President Hugo Chavez at the Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. The picture at bottom left is of independence hero Simon Bolivar. Maduro announced on March 5 that Chavez had died, after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. He was 58. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- The people tapped by Hugo Chavez to carry on his socialist revolution seem to be improvising the rules of governing as they march toward what most Venezuelans consider certain victory in a mid-April vote to replace the late president.

Chavez's designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, and his ruling clique have repeatedly circumvented the constitution and exploited their monopoly on power to all but crush an opposition already crippled by years of government intimidation.

The odds are so stacked against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles that he has compared his run to being "led to a slaughterhouse and dropped into a meat grinder."

Long before Chavez succumbed to cancer, Capriles and his supporters were already maligned and harassed, legally and financially, by the government, say human rights and press freedom analysts.

Now, they say, the repression is reaching new levels as the president's heirs step up attacks to compensate for their lack of Chavez's political acumen, charisma and moral authority.

Liliana Ortega, director of the COFAVIC human rights group, says the government acts with "military logic: You are loyal to me to the end. One small criticism, and you're my enemy."

The government has vilified Capriles as a "fascist" conspiring with U.S. putschists against the homeland. It hauls opposition leaders into court on criminal corruption charges. And it has impoverished Capriles' campaign by wielding tax investigators against donors, the opposition says,

Venezuelans learned Monday that the owners of the last remaining TV channel critical of the government were selling the channel, under what they described as government coercion. And on Wednesday, Interior Minister Nestor Reverol announced the arrest of a 53-year-old woman for sending "destabilizing" messages on Twitter. He offered few details, and the woman could not be located.

All this as the Chavista leadership choreographs Maduro's succession, dipping into a treasury fortified by revenues from the world's largest oil reserves and wielding a state media machine that takes control of all airwaves at will.

"It is classic consolidation of power in a crisis," said Adam Isacson, security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. "There was always an effort to at least put a patina of legality on what was being done. There was always a process. There's not much of a process now."

Information Ministry spokesman Oscar Lloreda said he doubted there would be a comment from the government about its tactics. "I don't think there is a spokesman interested in responding to those accusations," he said.

The improvisation began when the Supreme Court, stacked with Chavez loyalists, said the president's new term could begin as scheduled although he wouldn't be sworn in on Jan. 10 as specified by the constitution. Chavez was in Cuba at the time, battling a respiratory infection after his fourth cancer surgery.

After the president's March 5 death, Maduro was sworn in as acting leader, Chavez's wish for the man he named vice president after defeating Capriles in October by a 12-point margin.

The constitution says the National Assembly speaker should instead become interim leader if a president-elect dies before taking the oath of office. But no matter. The high court decision saying Chavez's term had already begun let the government swear in Maduro.

Another Supreme Court ruling, issued during Chavez's state funeral March 8, ratified Maduro as acting president.

The opposition screamed. The government ignored them.

At the swearing-in, more improvisation. Maduro claimed the armed forces' allegiance to a din of applause. He pumped a fist in the air as the state TV camera turned to Defense Minister Diego Molero, who reciprocated the gesture from the gallery.

A state TV channel had already announced via Twitter that the military was with Maduro, ignoring a constitutional mandate of political neutrality for the armed forces.

On Monday, another display of ruling party hubris: Maduro registered his candidacy on the terrace of the National Electoral Council, a nominally impartial body, while its chairwoman presided under a huge poster of Chavez reading "Maduro, from my heart."

The crowd of red-shirted Chavistas was thick. Capriles didn't show to register, sending two representatives instead.

Capriles had complained Maduro was using Chavez's body as a political prop, and his campaign later said he was emailed that morning a photograph of a hand pointing a gun at a TV screen bearing Capriles' image.

Chavez long ago turned the criminal justice system into a tool for exacting political vengeance, said COFAVIC's Ortega, who for a decade has had a detail of bodyguards ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

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