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Newly rich, now under attack

They made their money in Chavez's revolution and seemed untouchable. Now they are in jail.

Graft in Venezuela is not a new phenomenon. Chavez’s rise to power was largely fueled by discontent among the Venezuelan electorate over corruption within previous governments.

Some say the problem has become endemic under Chavez, a claim backed up by Transparency International’s corruption index, which places Venezuela 162 out of 180 countries. Others say such surveys are misleading because they poll only businessmen who, with the exception of the Boligarchs, are largely anti-Chavez.

Last week, the government arrested a judge and her entire court after she released Eligio Cedeno, another "boligarch" who was arrested in 2007 for allegedly circumventing government currency controls on purchasing U.S. dollars. Judge Maria Afiuni ruled that Cedeno should be freed after being presented an opinion by a U.N.-mandated panel of legal experts. Chavez has called for Afiuni to be imprisoned for 30 years.

Pro-government voices say the case proves that the judiciary is part of a corrupt system that existed before Chavez. Others say Afiuni's verdict was legal and that Chavez's intervention shows that the courts are subordinate to his whims.

Chavez faces important elections next year when Venezuela will vote for members of its lawmaking National Assembly. His popularity has slipped from 57 percent in February to 46 percent in October, according to local polling firm Datanalisis. That may fall further if voters perceive that he turned a blind eye to the Boligarchs’ activities until now.

Many question how he would be oblivious to corruption taking place so close to him. Gregory Wilpert, editor of the pro-Chavez news site Venezuelanalysis and author of “Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government,” believes that is possible.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he has only just found out about it because it’s pretty well known that Chavez is fairly insulated by his advisers,” he said. “If you look at what people in the communities always say about Chavez, they say they love Chavez but he’s surrounded by a whole bunch of corrupt people.”

But opposition voices such as Petkoff believe the Boligarchs scandal could implicate confidantes even closer to Chavez such as his former Vice President Diosdado Cabello and even his brother, Adan, the current governor of Barinas state.

“Here we are facing a paradox because in the eyes of the great public, above all members of his party, the president seems to be a champion in the fight against corruption,” he said. “In the short-term this could help him but in the mid-term will the president be able to maintain that image of himself as St. George against the Dragon? I don’t know.”