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Coordinadora Internacional Venezolana

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Venezuela: The Road to the Referendum

Periodic report on developments in Venezuela

The Chavez Regime Targets Opposition Leaders, Escalating Repression:

Mayor of Baruta Indicted on Ill-defined Charges

Washington D.C. – March 18, 2004 – On March 15th, a public prosecutor acting on behalf of Hugo Chavez` administration, issued an arrest order against Enrique Capriles Radonski, major of Baruta, a large municipality that includes a large part of Caracas metropolitan area. Mayor Capriles Radonski, also a national leader of the Primero Justicia party and a former member and leader of the Venezuelan congress, has been an outspoken critic of the Chavez regime, but is also a highly regarded elected public servant that has earned a reputation for running a highly professional local administration in at the Baruta municipality.

Mr. Capriles Radonski has declared his intention to voluntarily surrender himself to the authorities as soon as the charges against him are clearly defined and his lawyers have due access to the files of the case.  As this note is being written, 36 hours after the arrest warrant was issued, it remains uncertain what the specifics charges are and, as a matter of fact, the prosecutor in charge has publicly changed his position on this matter several times in successive statements. No access to the files of the case has been granted to the defense so far.

This incident represents the first time the Chavez regime undertakes an open initiative of sending to jail an elected official of the opposition. We would like to alert the international community to some of the implications of this escalation in the process of unraveling democracy of eroding political rights and the rule of law in Venezuela, as a consequence of President Chavez actions:

  1. The arrest order comes just on the eve of the short window of opportunity during which candidates can officially register to run in the coming State and Municipal elections. It is difficult to disassociate the timing of the indictment from the fact that its consequence would be the disqualification of Enrique Capriles Randonski as an individual with the right to compete in the election. It is worth pointing out that the latest opinion poll shows a 62 percent of support for the eventual reelection of Mr. Capriles as a mayor. It cannot be ruled out that the case of the mayor of Baruta is only a test that could open the way to a large scale legal attack on the ability of incumbent opposition governors and majors to participate in the next elections, scheduled for early August.
  1. The main focus of the political debate in Venezuela right now revolves around the recent ruling by the Supreme Tribunal that directs the CNE to validate a total of over 2,700,000 signatures, making the Recall Referendum an unavoidable Constitutional reality. By taking such a high profile initiative as the arrest of a visible leader of the opposition, the regime may very well be trying to redirect the attention of the Venezuelan public and the international community away from the crass unwillingness of the CNEs pro-Chavez majority to oblige and implement the Electoral Tribunal ruling that the recall referendum should proceed.

Given recent incidents of widespread human rights violations by the Venezuelan government, the international community should be proactive in making sure that Enrique Capriles Radonski benefits from due process and all the legal protection granted to any Venezuelan citizen, and does not become one more victim of arbitrary detention. At the same time, the international community should stay focused on proactively supporting the Recall Referendum as the pacific, constitutional and democratic way out the current political crisis.