Chavez threatens use of tanks to prevent protests over elections
Critics contend his tactics part of intimidation
CARACAS - President Hugo Chávez is threatening to imprison a popular opposition leader, roll tanks into the streets, and use force to defend the results of Sunday's state and local elections.
The vote is an important test of Chávez's support a year after Venezuelans rejected his attempt to abolish term limits, and critics say he is resorting to browbeating and smears for fear his candidates will lose.
"He has unleashed a wave of intimidation," Manuel Rosales, the opposition governor of Zulia state, said.
Rosales, who is in a close race with a Chávez candidate for mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, said the socialist leader "wants to wipe out and criminalize Venezuela's opposition, or those who don't think like he does, to attempt a constitutional reform allowing him to remain in power."
During a fiery speech to supporters yesterday, Chávez threatened to shut down any television stations that broadcast early election results and said he has ordered secret police "to keep a close eye on" Rosales.
"That criminal must go to prison," Chávez thundered, noting that Rosales has been repeatedly accused of graft. "There's evidence. They are not unfounded attacks."
Chávez also has threatened to cut off national funds and send tanks into the streets of any states where opposition leaders foment election protests, and he ordered soldiers to temporarily seize an airport in a dispute with the opposition governor of Sucre state. Chávez supporters cheered the seizure - and then looted the offices of an opposition mayor the next day.
"This is an armed revolution and the people are willing to defend the revolutionary process," the socialist leader warned last week as he predicted a violent opposition response to his allies' victories.
Chávez allies deny any government-organized effort to intimidate opponents.
But rival politicians and other critics blame the president for the bullying by pro-Chávez thugs, campaign-season criminal investigations, and bureaucratic nightmares such as hours-long interrogations by immigration officers at airports.
Authorities say the immigration procedures are routine, but Venezuelan sociology professor Heinz Sontag, who belongs to the opposition 2-D Movement, blames Chávez for the annulment of his valid passport when he returned from a trip last month. "I think he perceives growing discontent, and he is reacting with rage," Sontag said.
Chávez has been particularly critical of Rosales, his leading opponent in the 2006 presidential race. He traveled to Zulia last month and called for Rosales to be imprisoned, accusing the governor of corruption and even of plotting his assassination. Within days, Venezuela's top anti-corruption official, attorney general, and a committee of pro-Chávez lawmakers opened probes.
"Any citizen suspected of corruption or plotting to kill the nation's leader, regardless of their political leanings, should be investigated," lawmaker Mario Isea said.
Isea presented recordings of Rosales' phone calls as evidence he pocketed revenue from a state lottery and could be funding a purported plot to kill Chávez. The purported conversations are repeatedly broadcast in ads mocking Rosales on state television.
Chávez, a former lieutenant colonel who has been in office since 1999, still has broad support despite the loss of a constitutional referendum that would have expanded his power and scrapped term limits barring him from running in 2012.
Chávez's allies swept the last state elections in 2004, winning all but two of 23 governorships and a majority of local offices. This time candidates are competing for 22 governorships and 328 mayoral posts.
Voters are increasingly upset over such problems as recurring power outages, a coffee shortage, inflation of more than 35 percent in Caracas, and widespread crime.