By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – A prosecutor petitioned the judicial authorities to issue a warrant to place Manuel Rosales, a prominent opposition figure, in custody on the basis of alleged corruption while he was governor of Zulia state in western Venezuela.
Rosales is currently mayor of Maracaibo, the state capital of Zulia, and before that governor of the state for two consecutive terms. He also challenged President Hugo Chávez at the elections in 2006, and while losing by a margin of three votes to two, did better than many observers had expected. In the process, he established himself as a key figure and de facto leader of the opposition.
Prosecutor Katiuska Plaza announced that she was seeking the custody order from the judiciary in Zulia on the basis of accusations leveled by the National Assembly against Rosales. The National Assembly is almost entirely dominated by Chávez’ ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its allies.
The charges contemplated in Plaza’s petition were reckoned to imply jail sentences ranging between three and 10 years on conviction. Rosales has faced a flurry of accusations, many of them vague or as yet not filed at a court, since he went up against Chávez for the presidency.
Since then, and on more than one occasion, Chávez has vowed publicly that he intends to put Rosales behind bars. In December, Chavez announced that he was "determined to put Manuel Rosales in jail." Before the November election, he had threatened to launch "a military plan" against Rosales if he won. He has also threatened to "wipe [Rosales] from the political map."
Recently, he’s extended that threat to the opposition governors of the state of Zulia (Pablo Pérez), Carabobo (Henrique Salas Feo) and Nueva Esparta (Morel Rodríguez) after they attacked the legality of his takeover order of ports, airports and highways in their states.
Reacting to the news, Rosales dismissed Plaza’s move as a response to “an order from Chávez” and said he’d fight against it in all ways possible. “I’m going to meet with the lawyers and we will study the document that they presented,” he said in a lengthy and blistering statement to the media.
“It’s a way of criminalizing politics and also to crush those of us who have dissident voices in this country,” Rosales told reporters. Chávez did whatever he wanted to do and had “given a kicking” to the constitution, the mayor added. The president thought he owned the country.
Rosales claimed that the Venezuelans weren’t going to put up with this. “The people of Venezuela are going to rebel, they’re going to rise up because this is a pacific, democratic people, a civil people, but the provocations, the disrespect for the constitution is going to wake them up, the patriotic strength, the strength of a people who have historically reacted when they’ve had to react, because the abuse is too much, it’s gross the manner in which the constitution is being violated,” he said.
Some day there would be a reaction, Rosales warned, even if the government felt it was “supported by the cannons, weapons and frigates” of the armed forces. The mayor went on to note Chávez’ earlier threats to imprison him, and questioned the independence of the judiciary.
“As we all know in Venezuela, the powers don’t function,” he said. “They’re all subordinated to this militaristic attitude, this attitude at the margin of the constitution, the order of Chávez.”
Rosales didn’t pull any punches when it got to getting personal. For all the braggadocio, Chávez was “a coward who protects himself with the military,” and he’d like to get him on his own to see just how brave he really was, Rosales said.
Why, he asked out loud, weren’t the authorities investigating Chávez’ father, mother and family, who had been accused publicly. Instead, he added, nothing had happened.
A dissident National Assembly Deputy Wilmer Azuaje, has repeatedly voiced allegations about the Chávez clan in connection with properties in their home state, Barinas. Legal proceedings for defamation were recently launched against Azuaje.
Rosales was in no mood to go quietly, and he latched on to the president’s penchant for his past as a paratrooper. “Chávez is a coward,” he declared. “And like the coward that he is and the crybaby that he’s been, when he was in difficult situations what he did was to start crying.” Now, dressed in military trousers, Chávez was trying to put the Venezuelan people under his thumb.
Chávez, he said, was playing with fire at a time when the people were threatened by the grave economic situation and the prospect of higher taxes and gasoline prices. The president is expected shortly to announce measures to contend with the economic crisis sparked by nose-diving oil exports and earnings.
Rosales’ party, Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), claimed that the attempt to secure a custody order against him was an act of “vengeance” motivated by Chávez’ inability to defeat Rosales on the electoral field in Zulia.. Rosales was elected mayor of Maracaibo last November after serving the maximum two successive elected terms as state governor.
UNT President Omar Barboza called for a mass march in Maracaibo this Friday, arguing that it couldn’t be a coincidence that the prosecutor had made her move against Rosales just as the government was delivering a blow against the principle of decentralized power, a reference to the ports takeover.
Barboza said: “We’re fighting to defend the national constitution, and we say to this cowardly maneuver and the use of justice as an instrument of political vengeance that UNT calls not only on its members and leaders but all of democratic society in Venezuela to go out to the courts and the streets to contain this coup d’etat in development.”
National Assembly Deputy Ismael García of Podemos, the social democratic party that was once on Chávez’ side but is now almost the sole opposition at the legislature, said Plaza’s action was not solely against Rosales but also democratic values.
The government was slow to react. Deputy Mario Isea, a senior figure in the PSUV at the Assembly predicted that once the judiciary had carried out its tasks Rosales would be “condemned and imprisoned.”
Several denunciations had been made against Rosales and were on record with the comptroller’s committee at the legislature and the State Prosecutors Office, Isea said. “This señor is a delinquent disguised as a regional leader, a national leader,” he claimed.
Another pro-government legislator, Deputy Rafic Souki, claimed that Rosales had been investigated in connection with “more than 11 offences and we think any judge that acts in accordance with the law would deprive him of liberty at any moment.”
Plaza said she expected a court ruling on her request within 10 to 20 days, and indicated that the process of obtaining a court order confining Rosales to custody was still in progress. She was reported to have placed 26 judicial documents on the record with the judicial authorities, 12 of them apparently based on an investigation of Rosales by the State Prosecutors Office.
A further 14 documents were said to have been provided by the Comptroller General’s Office. Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russián has banned over 200 people, most of them from the mainstream opposition, from running for or holding public office.