Ever since Honduran soldiers bustled Pres. Manuel Zelaya out of his residence and onto a plane for Costa Rica, Hugo Chávez has been posturing as Latin America’s intrepid guardian of democracy. Chávez’s chutzpah is risible, yet the populist strongman has played an unfortunately large role in driving the regional debate over Honduras. Meanwhile, his dismantling of Venezuelan democracy continues apace.
Just ask Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, the victim of a slow-motion coup that has steadily drained his power and resources. On July 3, the mayor commenced a hunger strike to focus attention on Chávez’s harassment of opposition political figures. Ledezma decided to stage his protest in the Caracas offices of the Organization of American States (OAS) — a fitting choice, since the OAS has been disgracefully reluctant to criticize Venezuela’s slide into authoritarianism. He ended the hunger strike last Wednesday, after OAS boss José Miguel Insulza pledged to meet with Venezuelan state and local officials who have been targeted for persecution by the Chávez regime.
Leader of the aptly named Fearless People’s Alliance, an anti-Chávez party founded in 2000, the 54-year-old Ledezma previously served as governor of Caracas (a post that no longer exists) in the early 1990s and then as chief executive of the city’s Libertador Municipality from 1996 to 2000. During his 2008 mayoral bid, he dealt with pervasive government intimidation but still managed to edge the Chávez-backed candidate, Aristóbulo Istúriz. Ledezma won election in November and took office in early December. (Many other opposition politicians were banned from competing in Venezuela’s November 2008 elections on the basis of trumped-up corruption charges. This group included the enormously popular Leopoldo López, 38, who was mayor of a Caracas municipality from 2000 to 2008.) In a magnanimous gesture, he invited the Venezuelan president “to work with us to save Caracas,” a city plagued by horrific crime rates and deep poverty.
So much for that. Shortly after Ledezma’s inauguration, pro-Chávez paramilitaries raided city hall and kicked him out; they also ransacked and occupied other municipal buildings. The Caracas metropolitan police force — which since February 2008 has been controlled by the central government, rather than by the mayor — refused to help Ledezma and his staffers reclaim their offices. A coup was under way.
On April 15, Chávez installed Jacqueline Farías as “head of government” for the Caracas Capital District. Her position was created by the Venezuelan National Assembly, which Chávez has reduced to a rubber stamp for his regime. The assembly also passed legislation to transfer federal funds, city assets, budgetary clout, and control of municipal services from the Ledezma administration to the Farías administration. Officially, Ledezma still presides over Venezuela’s capital and biggest city. In practice, he has been stripped of almost all his mayoral authority. Chávez has basically annulled the outcome of November’s election by establishing a new political entity in Caracas and turning Ledezma into a figurehead.
Last month, the beleaguered mayor traveled to New York and spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas. Ledezma came to “request solidarity” in the defense of Venezuelan democracy. He lamented the decline and corruption of his country’s public institutions, noting that Chávez has manipulated the legal system to bludgeon his critics. In a September 2008 report, Human Rights Watch said that the Venezuelan regime has “effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government.” Indeed, “the president and his supporters carried out a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004,” after which the court “largely abdicated its role as a check on arbitrary state action and a guarantor of fundamental rights.”
Chávez’s subjugation of the judiciary, the legislature, and other democratic institutions has been accompanied by repeated assaults on Venezuela’s independent media outlets, which have mostly been crippled. Earlier this month, Venezuelan minister Diosdado Cabello announced that the government was revoking the licenses of some 240 radio stations. Chávez is also tightening his grip on television content and pursuing a legal campaign against Globovisión, a 24-hour TV news network that, as The Economist points out, “is the last remaining national channel that is critical of the government.”