Chavez ally raises specter of opposition violence

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 27, 2012 11:08 AM
Chavez ally raises specter of opposition violence

By Mario Naranjo

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez's big poll lead puts him in a strong position ahead of Venezuela's presidential election, but it could also convince radical opponents that violence is the only way to beat him, a senior campaign strategist said.

Despite ongoing cancer treatment, Chavez is favored to extend his 13-year rule at the October 7 vote, with most opinion polls giving him an advantage of at least 10 percentage points over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.

With speculation rife that Chavez's coalition could fragment if his illness worsens, government officials are repeatedly telling Venezuelans to beware of subterfuge by the opposition.

Aristobulo Isturiz, vice-president of parliament who also runs Chavez's campaign in the second most populous state, said in an interview on Thursday that the government was encouraged by surveys showing his support rising steadily in recent months.

"(But) as that lead widens, the sectors in the opposition that favor conspiracy and destabilization will strengthen," said Isturiz, a former Caracas mayor who served a long stint as Chavez's education minister.

"We have to prepare ourselves because there are violent and non-democratic groups in the opposition."

Government warnings of opposition conspiracies have been commonplace since a 2002 coup and a two-month oil strike that began the same year. Both were failed attempts to force Chavez from office that weakened the opposition's democratic credentials.

Chavez in April created an "anti-coup" task force as he accused the opposition of planning to spur violence in the run-up to the vote and refuse to recognize its results.

"If they know that the trend is irreversible then they may try to turn things around (and they know) only a catastrophic event or a series of catastrophic events can do that," Isturiz said.

Critics say the opposition has changed and insist Chavez's allies are using scare tactics to lay the groundwork for a refusal to hand over power if they lose.

They say the government is concocting conspiracy theories and making unfounded accusations to distract public attention from embarrassing statements by a former supreme court judge who this month charged that state officials systematically meddle in the justice system.

Opposition leaders point out that Chavez himself rose to fame on the back of a failed military coup in 1992, and some fear he will not hand over power if he loses in October.

Isturiz disputed media reports that the ruling Socialist Party is preparing alternative scenarios in case Chavez, who has been receiving cancer treatment in Cuba, is unable to run.

"We do not see any electoral scenario without Chavez," said Isturiz, a colorful character known for his populist style and lively language.

With Chavez's cancer and political accusations dominating headlines, Capriles is struggling to grab public attention with grassroots campaigning in the provinces.

On Thursday, he unveiled a plan to create 3 million jobs in six years - by activating industry and diversifying the economy - in response to Venezuelans' deep anxiety over unemployment.

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Eric Beech)