By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Opposition Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma warned that President Hugo Chávez was “irresponsibly playing with a war against Colombia – and trying to use the occasion of the Union of Southern Nations (Unasur) summit as a “trench or a tribune” in his so far verbal battle with Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe.
In this, Ledezma was reflecting what appears to be a cause of concern in some quarters – namely, that Chávez’s warlike rhetoric could somehow slip into the real thing. Or as one worried citizen in Chacao recently put it, “talking himself into an accident waiting to happen”.
Ledezma has been on a foreign tour trying to get his view of developments in Venezuela across to foreign onlookers whom he and his sympathizers suspect do not understand the true nature of Chávez’s authoritarian, populist approach to politics.
Ledezma had been filmed on his arrival at the Simón Bolívar International airport at Maiquetía north of Caracas, and the filmed material was shown at the National Assembly. Rejecting this, the mayor went on to claim that the “ruffian” government had also put people to follow him at hotels where journalists had been staying, as well as during the flight.
It was, he remarked, as if he had been tailed by policemen, and the government had no respect for the privacy of the individual. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” he intoned. “I’m going to continue struggling, it hurts the government that one goes out to explain what’s happening.”
He had been obliged to cut short his tour because his “priority is the freedom of my work companions” – a reference to a group of municipal workers who were arrested by the Metropolitan Police on Wednesday.
Time was when Ledezma wielded political control over the Metropolitan Police. That was until the force and a lot of other Metropolitan assets and state funding were transferred to Jacqueline Faría, whom Chávez appointed “chief of government” over Ledezma’s head earlier this year.
Since then, Ledezma has seen his powers as elected mayor steadily whittled away. And even before that, he’d had a string of problems with the harder elements among the president’s supporters or chavistas. Now, to all intents and purposes, his position as mayor has become largely honorific.
“They can take the Metropolitan Palace away from me, they can take away some resources from me,” he continued, but “the caraqueños aren’t going to sell their souls to the devil.” He welcomed adversity because it tested him, and he looked to God. “I trust in God and the goodwill of all the Venezuelans.”
Ledezma argued that the president was intent on “isolating” Venezuela, although the mayor didn’t explain why this should be so.
The Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) entered the fray, emphasizing that the people of Colombia and Venezuela didn’t have problems with each other, and wanted respect for peace and co-existence. CTV Contracting and Conflict Secretary Pablo Castro said relations between the two countries could not be smashed by the caprice of someone who governed.
For his part, Chávez switched targets ahead of Friday’s Unasur summit, which is partly overshadowed by concern that he might get into an unbrotherly spat with Uribe. He denounced “The Empire” – the United States, that is – of initiating a “counter-offensive” against “the progressive and democratic advances” being made in Latin America.
That morning, an Argentine newspaper had published a “message” in which Chávez declared that he was “really and deeply preoccupied by the situation of tension with Colombia in the light of the installation of at least seven military bases” to be used by United States military forces.
Chávez’s latest dispute with Uribe was sparked by the Colombian leader’s having signed an agreement allowing the United States military to use air bases in his country. Chávez sees this as a threat to the region in general and Venezuela in particular.
He has long claimed that senior officials in Washington are plotting to overthrow and assassinate him, invade Venezuela and seize its oil wealth. In his view, Uribe is at least a patsy of Washington, if not its resident stooge in the region.
The bases were all tied up with a plan to do down the Unasur project, and this posed a great threat to the country’s riches. “It would be a grave error to think that the threat is only against Venezuela,” he warned. “It’s directed against all the countries of the southern continent.”
Chávez went to some length to stress that he had no quarrel with their Colombian people but with a “servile elite” whose business was war with the brother country, and “to expand and impose its armed conflict with the aim of stigmatizing and destabilizing the progressive and revolutionary movements which, in a legitimate, democratic and pacific manner are advancing with the dreams and flags of liberators.”
In the United States, Congressman Eliot L. Engel, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, disagreed with Chavez about the agreement:
“In spite of reports to the contrary, this bilateral agreement only regularizes cooperation between the U.S. and Colombia," said Engel. "It envisions no permanent U.S. bases or increased military deployments."