By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – The Capital District Law turning Caracas into a national rather than Metropolitan entity was promulgated in the Gazeta Oficial in the latest step in the government’s political neutering of Opposition leaders, in this case Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.
Under the new law, a chief of government with much the same powers and status as a state governor will be appointed over Ledezma’s head to run the capital. Advocates of the law claim it’s a long overdue measure that will put the central authorities in the capital on a par with state governments.
Critics question why, if that’s indeed the case, the step wasn’t taken before. Caracas as a whole was under the control of a Metropolitan mayor from President Hugo Chávez’ ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – and before that, its predecessor, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) – for eight years until late 2008.
But that was before Ledezma, the Opposition’s single unity candidate, beat the PSUV’s contender, Aristóbulo Istúriz – a former education and sports minister and long-term mentor and associate of the president – at the elections last November.
The Capital District Law not only places an executive over Ledezma’s head in the name of supposed inter-regional equality. It also effectively strips Ledezma of much of the powers enjoyed by the Mayor until now – not least by imposing a massive 57% cut in central government funding.
While PSUV spokesmen and senior government officials speak of the need for democracy and equality at this second tier of governance, there’s a glaring difference between the new city chief and the state governors. This relates to how they get the job.
State governors are elected. In theory, appointment of the capital’s chief of government lies within the domain of the National Assembly.
Instead, on Tuesday night, Chavez named Jaqueline Farias Chief of State for the newly formed
Capital District. Farias, who is president of state mobile phone company Movilnet, was previously minister of the environment and head of the capital city’s water agency, Chavez said on state television.
In the meantime, officialdom continues to chip away at Ledezma’s bailiwick. The latest move came around midnight last Friday, when officials from Policaracas, the municipal police in Libertador in west Caracas, abruptly ordered municipal officials not to remove anything from a depot run by the Metropolitan Service Corporation.
The corporation provides the buses used to transport children to and from school, and other useful social services, as well as vehicles, machinery and equipment for other purposes. As such, it’s the backbone of any practical attempt to cope with the city’s problems.
Policaracas come under the political control of the Libertador municipality – the only one of the five municipalities making up the capital that is still in government hands. The mayor is Jorge Rodríguez, a former vice president who’s a big wheel in the PSUV, and whose star evidently continues to shine in the Chavista universe.
“It seems to me that that the Commissioner Jorge Rodríguez committed a great barbarity because as Mayor of Libertador Municipality he should also have an at least respectful relationship with the Metropolitan Mayor,” Ledezma said. When Ledezma met with municipal mayors shortly after taking office, Rodríguez stonily stayed away.
The head of the services corporation, José Luis Cova, voiced what a lot of people were thinking by saying the police action had been aimed at “sabotaging the activities of Mayor Ledezma.” Freddy Guevara, an opposition student leader-turned-city councilor, said the capital District Law stemmed directly from the result of the election a little more than four months ago.
Faced with this barrage of epithets, there was no immediate response from Rodríguez. This was by no means out of character. Rodríguez, a psychiatrist by training, can dish out the denigration when he feels like it; but those who practice his profession have been known to make use of prolonged silences as their patients mentally squirm on the couch.
Perhaps Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Assaimi took his cue from Rodríguez. Asked about Ledezma’s reaction to the effective takeover of the services corporation, he airily responded that the mayor should “attend a psychiatrist and stop imagining fantasies. With considerable condescension, given the circumstances, he added that Ledezma should “dedicate himself to his work.”
There was a quick and simple answer to this from a municipal employee as he joined a protest outside Ledezma’s office in support of the mayor and against the Capital District Law. “How?” he asked out loud. Ledezma has warned that 40,000 jobs could disappear under the new order.
“I blame myself for this,” said another of the protesters, asking to remain nameless for reasons that should become obvious in the next few lines. “I voted for Chávez, but didn’t reckon on how some of his followers were going to be like when they got into power. That Barreto was a disaster.”
This was a reference to Juan Barreto, a one-time heavyweight in the PSUV and before it the MVR who preceded Ledezma as city chief executive. Time was when Barreto was a big cheese, but today, he appears to have vanished entirely from the political scene and has a program on a minor radio station.
It’s said that Barreto fell out of favor with Chávez as the capital’s seemingly endemic problems – high crime, crumbing transportation, ever-present garbage, inadequate housing, among others – steadily got worse. Then Ledezma beat Istúriz.
The president has shown a disposition to get rid of losers, and it’s presumed he came to the conclusion that Barreto was one. Now, Chávez’ critics claim that he or those of his ilk are out to ensure Ledezma doesn’t succeed where Barreto failed.
“Following Barreto shouldn’t have been difficult,” the anonymously discontented municipal worker told the Latin American Herald Tribune. He seemingly couldn’t care less about anyone knowing which side he stood on.
“Ledezma had done the job before, we at least knew what to expect, and he couldn’t be any worse than what went before. So I voted for him,” he roundly declared. “Now they’re trying to undo my vote because they don’t like the way it went.”
Ever since taking office, Ledezma’s life has been an obstacle course of problems. First, rowdies in trademark Chavista red shirts barred him from entering City Hall, claiming to be municipal workers as they smashed windows and mirrors – no superstitions about bad luck there – and shouted they weren’t going to work for a scumbag like him. Neither the National Guard nor the Metropolitan Police, standing nearby, intervened to prevent what was clearly wanton vandalism of public property. Then, when Ledezma tried to hold his first city council meeting at the building which housed the old Supreme Court, National Guard troops barred him from entering.
Ever since the council has had to hop, skip and jump from one venue to another in order to discuss city business. The council, of course, now has a majority from the anti-Chávez camp and the PSUV is outnumbered.
When Ledezma recently went to the National Assembly to deliver a protest against the recent reforms of the Decentralization Law, officers from the Metropolitan Police fired tear gas at his supporters. El Assaimi’s explanation of this was that Ledezma had strayed into a security zone and should have known better.
In theory, the guardsmen come under El Assaimi’s political control. The minister is under suspicion of atleast partly orchestrating action by the security forces in what’s coming to be seen as a campaign of intimidation and obstructionism aimed at the mayor