Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tensions rise between Chavez, foes in Venezuela

A move to arrest a prominent opposition leader sent thousands of anti-government protesters into the streets of the country's second-largest city Friday, accusing President Hugo Chavez of launching a new attack against his critics.

The protest came after a prosecutor called for the arrest of Mayor Manuel Rosales, a prominent Chavez opponent who has been accused of corruption.

"There is no justice in Venezuela," Rosales told the crowd. "But we will continue fighting."

Critics say Chavez and his allies are leading a two-pronged offensive by persecuting opponents and increasing presidential power by putting all airports, highways and seaports under federal control. Several key ports were previously administered by Chavez opponents.

Chavez won a key vote last month that eliminated term limits.

He has warned governors that they could be arrested if they try to resist the new law bringing transportation hubs under national control.

"The persecution of the opposition is beginning, and I'm sure that Rosales won't be the last to go to jail," said Oscar Perez, an opposition leader.

Chavez denies persecuting opponents for political reasons and has called for Rosales to be jailed on corruption allegations stemming from the mayor's 2002-2004 term as governor of Zulia state.

The attorney general's office says the case against Rosales is based on a 2007 report by the country's comptroller general, the leading anti-corruption authority, that found Rosales received funds "he could not justify."

Analyst Luis Vicente Leon said some of Chavez's actions appear aimed at instilling fear in his foes.

"He's sending the message that he's capable of going against anybody _ no matter how strong you are," Leon, a Caracas-based economist and pollster, told The Associated Press.

Some critics are also alarmed by the socialist leader's efforts to clamp down with more state control over the economy as the effects of the world economic meltdown begin to set in _ compounded by low prices for Venezuelan oil, which provides 94 percent of export earnings.

Chavez has been playing hardball to try to get private companies to produce more price-controlled items as required under strict new regulations aimed at containing inflation. He ordered the expropriation of a rice plant owned by Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. earlier this month and warned major food producer Empresas Polar that it could be taken over if it does not obey the new regulations.

Chavez plans to announce economic measures on Saturday to help cope with the global crisis.

The government also is facing mounting pressure from public workers' unions, several of which have threatened in recent weeks to demand better contracts.

Meanwhile, strikes at auto assembly plants owned by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Toyota have been severely slowing production, cutting the output of vehicles in the country by 25 percent overall.

Toyota's Venezuelan-based subsidiary warned Friday that the plant's future is being jeopardized by a worker occupation since March 6.

The company, which has 2,700 employees here, said "for the first time in 51 years in Venezuela, we're seeing with great concern the possibility that the continuation of the Toyota plant's operations could be affected critically and permanently."

Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.