Venezuelan leader seeks to rally poor with mayor's arrest

AP News
|
Posted: Feb 23, 2015 7:26 PM
Venezuelan leader seeks to rally poor with mayor's arrest

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro appears to have chosen his latest foe carefully.

While the arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma provoked spontaneous demonstrations and drew international condemnation, it also reminded many Venezuelans of what they most disliked about the politicians who preceded Maduro and his late mentor Hugo Chavez at a time when the socialist government faces an economic crisis that has sent the president's popularity plummeting.

Over the past year, Maduro's embattled government has arrested several opposition politicians and business executives, accusing them of plotting to destabilize the government.

None, however, fits the role of boogeyman quite like Ledezma, who plunged into politics in his 20s and has amassed a bevy of political liabilities over the years.

Chief among them is his close relationship with disgraced former President Carlos Andres Perez.

Perez rode an oil boom in the late 1970s that boosted Venezuela's influence on the world stage, only to see a second stint as president a decade later end in impeachment and exile after a series of Washington-backed economic reforms triggered unprecedented unrest.

Ledezma was Perez's hand-picked governor of the now-defunct federal district following the 1989 riots known as the Caracazo. Hundreds were killed as police fired indiscriminately on Venezuelans who took to the streets to protest an unpopular gasoline hike and other austerity measures.

Maduro refers to Ledezma as the "vampire," and has seized on his relationship with Perez to accuse the 59-year-old politician of being a relic of the so-called Fourth Republic, a term created by Chavez to describe a sham, elite-dominated democracy that excluded the poor from decision-making for decades before Chavez was elected president in 1999 and began moving the country to the left.

Indeed, even while a younger generation of opposition leaders distanced itself from the corruption of the past two-party system, Ledezma has remained loyal to his strongman mentor, serving as a pallbearer in his funeral in Miami in 2010. His office is chock-full of photos of the two.

"I'm not happy he's in jail, but at least finally justice is being done," said Henry Echenique, a 55-year-old taxi driver whose friends lost children during the unrest.

In recent months, economic problems such as widespread shortages and 68 percent inflation have mounted and support for Maduro has slid to a dangerously low 22 percent. The crash in oil prices, on which government spending depends almost entirely, has further rattled officials ahead of legislative elections set for later this year that, if the opposition wins, would likely pave the way for a recall referendum.

But as hard as life has become under Maduro, polls show many poor Venezuelans remain loyal to the revolution started by Chavez and are at best indifferent to an opposition they fear could turn back the clock and slash social spending.

If Ledezma's past haunts him, the obstacles placed in the way of the opposition have proven just as formidable.

Only days after Ledezma took office as mayor in 2008, Chavez's government booted him out of the colonial-era city hall downtown and gutted his powers by giving a rival entity responsibility for schools, policing and even tax collection. He responded with a hunger strike lasting six days that cemented his status as one of Chavez's fiercest critics.

The assault on his authority rallied support and he was re-elected in 2013, winning more votes than Maduro did in the capital.

Last year, he banded together with other hardliners to promote the "The Exit," a strategy of street protests aimed at forcing the president's resignation.

Despite being at odds with the government, his stepdaughter is married to one of its chief promoters: Tourism Minister Andres Izarra. So far, the insider connections appear to have been of little help.

Maduro has vowed to present this week videos he says will prove the mayor is trying to sow unrest to set the stage for a military putsch. So far the evidence he's presented has been slim, consisting of a public letter signed by Ledezma calling for a transitional government and an edited excerpt from a video in which a radical activist now in jail praises the "old fox" as a firm ally in the struggle to remove Maduro.

Ledezma's backers deny any coup plot and say the government is inventing conspiracies to avoid a whipping at the ballot box.

"It's a smoke screen to distract attention from peoples' needs," Mitzy Ledezma, the mayor's wife, said in an interview Sunday, adding that she and her husband had been followed for weeks before his arrest. "The government is increasingly desperate because its economic model has failed."

___

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman