Sunday, May 4, 2008

Venezuelan President Chavez' family accused of corruption

Power+Money=Corruption=Hugo Chavez+Hugo's Family
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Venezuelan President Chavez' family accused of corruption
Posted on Mon, Apr. 28, 2008
By TYLER BRIDGES

tbridges@MiamiHerald.com

RAUL ROMERO/FOR THE MIAMI HERALD
Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, the governor of Barinas state and father of President Hugo Chavez, at a ceremony honoring him in the city of Barinas. His wife Elena Frias de Chavez is to the left.
BARINAS, Venezuela -- Group after group -- seven in all -- climbed onto the modest stage, each one bearing a plaque honoring a man known throughout this western plains state as ``El Maestro.'' Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, father of Venezuela's president, is winding down a 10-year tenure as Barinas' governor.
But by the time the two-hour ceremony had ended in a sweaty gymnasium here, half of the party loyalists in red T-shirts had departed.
It was a symbol of the trouble the Chávez family is facing outside the gymnasium. One of President Hugo Chávez's brothers is no longer assured of winning the election in November to succeed their father, a hometurf defeat that would badly wound the president and his socialist ``revolution.''
Besides the governor, four of President Chávez's five other brothers play a key role in the state.
Argenis is secretary of state and the real power in Barinas since a stroke enfeebled El Maestro, analysts say.
Aníbal Chávez is the mayor of Sabaneta, the town where the president and his brothers were born.
Adelis Chávez works for Banco Sofitasa, which handles the banking needs of the state government, and he was responsible for building a soccer stadium.
Narciso Chávez is politically active behind the scenes in Barinas.
Adán is the one brother who doesn't live in Barinas, but he is the president's minister of education and is seen as the one most likely to run for governor, given the corruption accusations tainting the other brothers.
Barinas residents have become fed up with what they see as the heavy-handed and arrogant ways of the Chávez family, analysts and average citizens alike say.
One example that rankles widely: The governor and his wife travel in a caravan of SUVs with a police escort that halts all traffic to let them pass.
Governor Chávez spent millions of dollars to build a sugar refinery that has yet to open, and millions more for a new soccer stadium that remains unfinished, a year after it was inaugurated for the America's Cup tournament, analysts said.

Gehard Cartay, who was Barinas' governor 1993-96, said the state government spends its money in secret and no longer seeks public bids for big infrastructure projects. Even Governor Chávez's salary is hidden, he added.
''They are not the same poor family as before,'' Cartay said. ``It's hard to hide wealth in a small state like Barinas.''
An ambitious congressman from Barinas has broken with President Chávez's political party by trying to capitalize on the disenchantment, at a time when the president has lost public support nationally as well as his aura of invincibility after suffering his first electoral defeat when voters in December rejected expanding his power.
The congressman, Wilmer Azuaje, has launched his campaign for governor by accusing the elder Chávez and two of the president's brothers of using public funds to buy ranches in Barinas and using straw men to hide the purchases.
''Everybody knows this has been going on,'' said Angel Díaz, whose brother Frenchy, a local mayor, is also a candidate for governor. ``That the accusations came from someone within the Chávez camp has been a bombshell.''
Elena Frías de Chávez, wife of the governor and mother of the president, is known for her flashy jewelry and for reputed visits to a plastic surgeon. She had a quick response when asked about the accusations.
''It's all about envy,'' she said on her way into the gymnasium ceremony. ``These people are uneducated. They want to pull us down to their level. They are pitiful lowlifes. They're not used to a single family holding such power.''
No one disputes that El Maestro -- a nickname dating to his days as a schoolteacher -- and his children wield enormous power in Barinas, which is both a state and a city.
Barinas could be an underdeveloped version of West Texas, with its cattle ranches, country music and stifling heat. Open-air thatched roof restaurants serve meat carved from flanks of beef cooked slowly on poles around a campfire.
Barinas is one of Venezuela's poorest states.
Hugo was born in a shack with a dirt floor in Sabaneta. The family's home in the city of Barinas, where they moved when Hugo was a teenager, was a modest upgrade.
Older residents remember him dreaming far more about pitching for the San Francisco Giants than trying to turn his country into a Socialist paradise.
Hugo de los Reyes Chávez was a state leader with Copei, Venezuela's center-right political party.
About 30 years ago, he bought a ranch called La Chavera and raised pigs and chickens.
''It was a very simple place,'' recalled Antonio Bastidas, a neighbor of the Chávez clan and now a political foe. ``I helped them slaughter the pigs and chickens. They earned just enough to keep it going.''
La Chavera has doubled in size to 150 acres, now has milk cows and is a state-of-the-art ranch, said Bastidas. Asked how the elder Chávez paid for this, Bastidas replied, ``Well, he didn't win the lottery.''
Congressman Azuaje has been more direct in his comments. He has accused the governor and Argenis and Narciso Chávez of secretly buying up to 17 ranches in Barinas. He notes that records on one of the ranches, La Malagueña, list the longtime watchman at La Chavera as having paid $400,000 to buy it.
Locals seem to believe that the ranch belongs to the Chávez family. On the way to La Malagueña, Azuaje repeatedly pulled over on the two-lane country road to ask small-time farmers if they knew how to get to the ''Chávez ranch.'' Seven of eight people told him it was just a little farther down the road.
The governor and his sons ''see Barinas as their own personal hacienda,'' Azuaje said. ``They're exploiting their last name. But Barinas doesn't belong to them.''
Azuaje has presented ownership documents on five of the ranches to the national prosecutor and a congressional committee.
He would not have been welcome at the gymnasium, where 2,000 of the Chávez faithful gathered for El Maestro's annual state of the state speech.
''He's a good person,'' said William Herrera, who, like several others interviewed, said he worked for state government. ``He listens to the people and is accessible.''
But the good will seemed to seep out of the gymnasium while the elder Chávez read his speech in a monotone so uncaptivating that even his sons soon ignored it to talk with seatmates.
''I haven't lied,'' Hugo de los Reyes Chávez said at one point. ``I haven't violated any ethical principles.''
In Caracas, party leaders have called for an investigation of Azuaje and for his expulsion from the party.
One party stalwart said on a television show that Azuaje frequented prostitutes and abused drugs. Azuaje promptly tested negative for cocaine and marijuana and displayed the results on his own show.
The congressman has been careful not to implicate President Chávez.
The president has refrained from attacking Azuaje, instead saying that his brothers deserve the right to defend themselves.
Azuaje, 31, has been a political leader in Barinas since 2000 and was elected to Congress in 2005.
He likes to drive fast, with one hand on the wheel of his SUV and the other dialing his cell phone or changing the channels on the small dashboard TV. His 20-year-old girlfriend was a candidate for Miss Venezuela last year.
Azuaje said he had no choice but to go public after receiving information about the ranches.
''The president says that revolutionaries have to tell the truth,'' Azuaje said. ``If you don't denounce corruption, you are an accomplice.''
Others ascribe less pure motives.
''It's like pirates fighting over the booty,'' said Jesús Alfonso Sánchez, a law professor and former congressman. ``They are turning on themselves. Everybody's talking about it.''
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/americas/story/513132.html

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