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Clashes continue between Chavez and opposition

Chavez launches accusations at the governor of a southwestern state.

President Hugo Chavez speaks during his weekly broadcast "Alo Presidente" from La Bandera ranch in Tachira June 14, 2009. (Miraflores Palace/Handout/Reuters)

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.