SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez's increasingly confrontational line against leading opposition leaders gathered pace recently when he accused the governor of Tachira, Cesar Perez Vivas, of criticizing the Venezuelan government abroad and of conspiring with right-wing paramilitary groups.

"Look, Governor, I could accuse you before the courts of treason against the fatherland," said Chavez, who was hosting his weekly television show on a cattle ranch in this mountainous southwestern state. "I'll tell you from here: If you carry on like you are, I see you in Lima, playing domino with the other one," he said, referring to Manuel Rosales, another opposition politician, who is currently in exile in Peru.

His interior minister, Tarek Al-Assaimi, reinforced the point, saying that state police force collusion with right-wing armed groups had contributed to a 43 percent spike in crime since Perez Vivas wrested control of the state from the previous, pro-Chavez incumbent in last November’s regional elections. Al-Assaimi also accused Perez Vivas of plotting to separate Tachira from the rest of Venezuela, echoing a theory Chavez had put forward during the November elections.

But Perez Vivas, a former lawyer and professor at the local university, said the accusations were just the latest step in a government campaign to crush opposition leaders.

“That’s a dirty war that the government is promulgating with the objective of finding a way to take back a state like this in which we defeated them politically and electorally,” he said in his offices in San Cristobal, just after returning from Caracas, where he had been defending himself on the country’s national television networks. “If they had a single bit of proof that Governor Cesar Perez Vivas is outside the rule of law they would already have imprisoned me.”

Local newspapers report a rise in paramilitary activity spilling over the border from Colombia — including incidents of so-called social cleansing that have targeted sex workers, homosexuals and drug dealers. A taxi driver in the border town of San Antonio, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said all of his colleagues had to pay a “vacuna,” or “vaccine,” for protection from armed groups.

But Perez Vivas pointed out that combating these sorts of crimes was the job of the army and the National Guard, which is controlled by the national government. In addition, he said that the state police was stripped of all its weapons except pistols and batons just before he took office, and that the other weapons were handed over to the army.

The accusations against Perez Vivas come after several legal actions against leading opposition leaders — which critics of the government claim are a form of political persecution. In April, a law passed by the Chavez-controlled National Assembly effectively stripped the opposition metropolitan mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, of most of his powers and left him working from a makeshift office. The law separated the western (Chavez-controlled) section of the city from the east and allowed Chavez to appoint an unelected official to oversee the administration of the city.

Manuel Rosales, the mayor of Venezuela’s second-largest city, Maracaibo, and a former presidential candidate, is currently in Peru after the government attempted to try him on corruption charges. Rosales claims innocence and said he fled because he feared he would not receive a fair trial.

Perez Vivas, meanwhile, alleges that the government has tried to suffocate opposition governors by restricting their regional budgets. In this year’s budget, the central government reduced regional funds by 21.33 percent as an “austerity” package to combat the effects of the global economic crisis and low oil prices. The central government, meanwhile, cut its budget by just 6.25 percent, forcing the regional states to bear the brunt of the cuts, said Leomagno Flores, general secretary for the government of Tachira.

The cuts forced the governor to reduce the state budget for public works by 75 percent, as well as the wages of many state employees — although recently the government announced it would be sending Tachira a further $56 million, about half of the original cut.

But Chavez supporters are also claiming mistreatment, at the hands of the opposition.

Nellyver Lugo, a deputy for the Regional Legislative Council of Tachira with Chavez’s United Socialist Parties of Venezuela (PSUV), said the governor had aimed most of his cuts at the 17 (out of 29) PSUV-controlled mayor’s offices, as well as at some of Chavez’s most popular initiatives such as the missions — social projects such as free health clinics, literacy classes and schools in the poorest slums. In May, the government announced a budget of $33.5 million that will be administered directly to these 17 mayor’s offices, as well as a plan to fund local Chavez-supporting community councils, bypassing the remaining 12 opposition-controlled municipalities.

“In light of the constant sabotages we have had, in the 12 municipalities where we don’t have mayors, we cannot ask a person to administer those funds because they will use them for publicity and to strengthen the economic groups that allowed them to be there in the first place,” Lugo said.

“I don’t believe there exists any possibility of collective work [with the governor] because what he represents is contrary to the fight that is my goal as a revolutionary,” Lugo added.

Flores confirmed that the government of Tachira had cut funding to the missions by 100 percent, but pointed out that these projects were meant to be bankrolled by the central government, and had only been administered by the previous governor because of his close alliance with Chavez.

“It was a calculated risk we took,” he said. “We knew the government wouldn’t close the missions so we made them send the money they were obligated to send as a national government.”

Perez Vivas said accusations against him could lead something similar to what happened with Manuel Rosales. “They could end up by manipulating an expedient or they could remain simply rhetoric,” he said. “But I think the government has taken the decision to liquidate the entire democratic leadership, not only Cesar Perez Vivas.”

Whatever the outcome, any kind of harmony or cooperation between opposing factions in Tachira – and across Venezuela – seems remote, as was highlighted by last weekend's Independence Day celebrations.

The Caracas-based daily El Universal reported that Perez Vivas was prevented by the National Guard from holding the Tachira government's ceremony in the Plaza Bolivar, San Cristobal's main square, and instead forced to move his ceremony to a square nearby while the national army and the PSUV-controlled Legislative Council held military marches.

More on Hugo Chavez:

Tickle me Hugo

A crackdown on Chavez opponents?


Hugo Chavez: Re-writing history

The "E" word: Venezuela and the return of expropriation

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