Venezuelan court orders arrest for exiled Chávez foe

Manuel Rosales, who ran against Chávez in 2006, is seeking asylum in Peru.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

President Hugo Chávez's offensive against opposition leaders jumped the country's borders Wednesday.

A Venezuelan court issued an international arrest order for Manuel Rosales, a key Chávez foe who surfaced Tuesday in Peru seeking political asylum.

Wednesday's developments came only days after Mr. Chávez and President Barack Obama warmed up frosty US-Venezuelan relations with their friendly meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.

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Venezuelan authorities said they want Interpol to arrest Mr. Rosales, the mayor of Maracaibo and Chávez's opponent in the 2006 presidential election, because he has skipped the country to avoid facing corruption charges.

"He needs to be captured wherever he is," said Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela's minister of justice and internal security. "Rosales says he is facing political persecution. But this is a corruption case that doesn't involve politics."

Speaking from an undisclosed location in Lima on Wednesday, Rosales reiterated in statements broadcast on Venezuela's Globovision television station that Chávez is trying to silence him with trumped-up charges.

Investigators have said that Rosales cannot explain why his declared worth in 2000 was $68,000 less than what his bank accounts showed in 2004 while he was governor of Zulia state. Rosales has said he earned the money through farming.

Instead of pursuing him, Rosales said, the Venezuelan government should prosecute a former Chávez vice president and pursue a case involving the purchase of drill rigs by the state oil company. Rosales made no specific allegations against the former vice president but suggested the price paid for the rigs was excessive.

"Why don't they go after the real corrupt people?" Rosales asked.

"We'll keep up our fight," he added. "This move isn't over."

In a seeming rebuttal to Rosales's complaints about political persecution, prosecutors in Venezuela announced corruption charges Wednesday against former Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto. A Chávez ally who lost his re-election bid in November, Mr. Barreto is accused of taking a cut of government contracts. He denied the charges.

Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog group, ranked Venezuela as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, 158th on a list of 180 countries.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde said he expects his country to rule on Rosales' asylum request in two weeks.

"The opposition wants the government to give him asylum," Carlos Bruce, an opposition member of Congress, said by telephone from Lima. "I don't know whether Rosales is innocent or not, but he can't get a fair trial in Venezuela. But the [Peruvian] government is handling this case very cautiously because it doesn't want to upset the government of Venezuela."

Chávez and Peruvian President Alan Garcia have had testy relations, although they had a cordial meeting with fellow leaders in Lima last year.

Chávez openly supported Mr. Garcia's opponent in Peru's 2006 presidential race, leftist former colonel Ollanta Humala. Garcia repeatedly said that Mr. Humala would be a Chávez puppet, capitalizing on Chávez's unpopularity in Peru.

Chávez's opponents and many analysts say that Chávez is using his control of Congress and the court system to thwart the opposition in the wake of a major victory in a February national referendum and in advance of an expected dip in his high approval ratings as Venezuela slides into recession.

A Venezuelan military court has jailed Raul Isaias Baduel, who until he resigned as defense minister in 2007 had been part of Chávez's inner circle. A fierce Chávez opponent since then, Mr. Baduel is charged with stealing $19 million in public funds, which he denies.

Congress also has waded in by transferring away 90 percent of the budget and executive powers of Antonio Ledezma, who in November was elected as mayor of metro Caracas, the country's second most important political position.

The government also is threatening to shut down Globovision, the only television station remaining that regularly airs critics of Chávez.

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