RORY CARROLL - Apr 23 2010 06:00
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Wilmer Azuaje was a young firebrand when he joined Hugo Chávez's revolution a decade ago to topple Venezuela's corrupt ruling class. He was elected to the National Assembly and worked with Chávez's family to turn their home state of Barinas, a rural backwater of cattle ranches, into a laboratory of change.
Azuaje was inspired by Chávez's promise to sweep away the graft and patronage that had stunted an oil-driven economy. "I believed in reform," he said.
No longer. The baby-faced protégé, once a rising star in the ruling party, has now become the Chávez family's most outspoken foe. "They turned out to be the most corrupt ever. They betrayed us."
Azuaje has blown the whistle on what he claims is a kleptocratic dynasty in Barinas where farms, businesses, banks and government contracts have been pocketed by the president's parents and five brothers.
The allegations come amid wider complaints that the revolutionary socialist movement known as "chavismo" has been hijacked by money-driven opportunists in, or close to, government.
Nationalisations, the creation of new state enterprises and a maze of price and currency controls have spawned well-connected millionaires nicknamed "Boligarchs", after the independence hero revered by Chávez, Simon Bolivar.
Murky state finances have put Venezuela 162nd, with Angola and Congo, out of 180 countries in Transparency International's corruption perceptions index.
Chávez appears to have recognised the wheel has turned: that the anti-corruption cry that helped bring him to power in 1998 will be used against his candidates in September's legislative elections. "This party has to tighten the moral belt," he said in December last year.
He remains popular with many of the poor for spending oil revenues on social programmes, but with the economy shrinking and widespread electricity and water shortages, the perception of sleaze could tip the balance against his PSUV party. Some 64% of Venezuelans think corruption has worsened and believe things are generally going badly, according to a recent poll.
For Chávez it is especially galling that Barinas, the family fiefdom and revolution showcase, is now cited for corruption, nepotism and misrule.
Critics have a list of grievances that make the state's administration sound like a soap opera.
Chávez's father ruled as governor for a decade before handing over to the president's brother, Adan, in an election marred by fraud allegations.
Other brothers are also thriving: Anibal is mayor of nearby Sabaneta; Adelis is a top banker at Banco Sofitasa, which enjoys government contracts; Argenis wields enormous clout as a political fixer; Narciso is reportedly planning his own election run.
Members of what is dubbed the "royal family" travel in convoys of 4x4s. The president's once-matronly mother, Elena, has had a make-over with plastic surgery, designer clothes, bling jewellery and a poodle named Coqui.
The family allegedly bought thousands of hectares of farmland through proxies, including a former labourer, Nestor Izarra, named as the owner of one estate, La Malaguena. The family has denied any wrongdoing.
The cost of a football stadium built under Adelis Chávez's supervision ballooned to R700-million and remains unfinished three years after hosting its first game. A Venezuelan-Cuban sugarcane project has been mired in a R10-million embezzlement scam. The state government uses emergency decrees for public works that bypass open tender requirement and allegedly reward cronies.
Crime, notably kidnapping, has exploded, with even the middle class and poor falling prey to gangs that brazenly abduct victims from roads, shopping malls and universities. You are four times likelier to be kidnapped in Barinas than in Colombia or Mexico.
"The courts have collapsed, there are backlogs for everything," said Pedro Pablo Gonzalez, a lawyer and political activist. "There are not enough investigators, prosecutors or police." He recently led a 19-day 500km protest walk to the capital, Caracas.
Many local "chavistas" have defected to the opposition. "It became too much," said Lorenzo Saturno, a legislator who quit the ruling party. "Corruption is out of control and the Chávez family has total impunity."
Loyalists say that is a smear that overlooks new roads, houses, schools and employment projects dotting Barinas's plains and dusty towns. Why else would voters keep the Chávez family in power, asked Miguel Angel Leon, president of the regional legislative council. "This is a happy, dynamic state. But a few protesters are able to manipulate the media to make Barinas look bad." -- © Guardian News & Media 2010