Chavez foe launches presidential bid in Venezuela

AP News
Posted: Sep 24, 2011 4:36 PM
Chavez foe launches presidential bid in Venezuela

A Venezuelan opposition leader launched his presidential campaign Saturday, challenging President Hugo Chavez to accept him in the race after a human rights court overturned a ban on his candidacy.

Leopoldo Lopez said in a speech to thousands of supporters that Chavez shouldn't try to prevent him from running.

"Since 2008, he's been looking for a mechanism to remove me from the political game," Lopez said. "Mr. President, I ask myself: ... Are you afraid of me?"

Venezuela's top anti-corruption official had barred Lopez from running for office, but the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights earlier this month ordered election officials to allow him to run.

Chavez has criticized the court's decision. Government and electoral officials say they will await a decision on the matter by Venezuela's Supreme Court.

"Rights aren't begged for nor given. Rights are conquered and fought for. We fought for our right and we conquered it," Lopez told the cheering crowd.

He urged Chavez to accept the ruling and not "hide behind" other public institutions. Lopez said former Latin American strongmen including Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Argentina's Jorge Videla and Peru's Alberto Fujimori all sought to flout decisions by the rights court.

"Decide if you will be on the side of history of democracy, or on the side of history together with Pinochet, Fujimori and Videla, who also tried to violate decisions," Lopez said.

The former Caracas district mayor was barred from running for office in 2005 by Venezuela's comptroller general, an ally of Chavez. Lopez was accused of receiving donations between 1998 and 2001 on behalf of an organization he led from the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, where his mother worked at the time.

The comptroller general also sanctioned Lopez in 2004 for alleged irregularities in the movement of funds from one portion of his local budget to another.

Lopez was on a list of politicians blacklisted due to corruption investigations, but he insists he is innocent and notes he never was sentenced in a court.

Lopez plans to compete against other opposition contenders in a February primary vote that will pick a unity candidate to challenge Chavez in the October 2012 election.

In recent polls, Lopez has trailed other opposition leaders such as state governors Henrique Capriles and Pablo Perez. Those surveys were carried out before the human rights court sided with Lopez.

There was no immediate reaction from the government to Lopez's latest remarks.

Chavez said earlier this month that the rights court is part of an international system that "protects the corrupt and obeys the mandate of the (U.S.) imperial power and the bourgeoisie."

"What value can that court have?" Chavez said. "For me, it's worthless."

Lopez's supporters filled a Caracas avenue waving Venezuelan flags and beating out a festive rhythm on drums.

Some in the crowd said they have little faith in the Supreme Court. Many magistrates were appointed by pro-Chavez lawmakers who dominated the previous National Assembly before opposition candidates increased their presence in 2010 elections.

"If Chavez gives the order, the next day the court, all of them accept the sentence. He always has the last word," said Carmen Ruiz, a 34-year-old housewife at the rally.

Chavez vehemently denies holding sway over the courts or prosecutors, insisting they are autonomous and act according to the law.

International human rights groups argue that prosecutors and courts have targeted government opponents, and they urge Venezuela to abide by the ruling in Lopez's case.

"The Venezuelan government finds itself in a pickle: if they reject the sentence they will be in violation of the Venezuelan Constitution. If they accept it they will have to permit a political rival they have persecuted for several years," said Sarah Wasserman, chief operating officer of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation.

Other Chavez opponents have also faced accusations or criminal charges they say are politically motivated.

They include former presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chavez in the last election in 2006. Rosales fled into exile in 2009 after prosecutors accused him of pocketing public funds. He was granted asylum in Peru and has denied wrongdoing.

Guillermo Zuloaga, the majority owner of opposition-aligned TV channel Globovision, fled the country last year after a court issued an arrest warrant on charges of usury and conspiracy. Zuloaga accused prosecutors of carrying out a vendetta on orders from Chavez.

Another opposition politician, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, was jailed for nearly two months last year and was eventually convicted on a charge of spreading false information during a TV talk show. He denies the charge.


Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.