In November, Antonio Ledezma, a well-known opponent of the Venezuelan government, defeated President Hugo Chávez's handpicked candidate for mayor of greater Caracas. It was a particularly bitter setback for Chávez, not just because city hall is such a prized post but because Ledezma is so reviled by the president and his backers.
But Ledezma, 53, was mistaken if he thought winning office would mean controlling a far-flung city apparatus. Armed supporters of the president, wearing the government's trademark red T-shirts, took over city hall and three other vital government buildings. Incoming municipal officials found offices ransacked, computer equipment pilfered and vehicles missing.
The officials also said they discovered that former mayor Juan Barreto had hired thousands of hard-line Chávez supporters — not to work in city agencies but to proselytize for the president's so-called Bolivarian revolution, serve as bodyguards to pro-government lawmakers and function as shock troops to intimidate Chávez's foes.
On Sunday, in his second try in 14 months, Chávez is staging a referendum to ask Venezuelans to permit him to run for a third six-year term in 2012. But Ledezma's introduction to the president's brand of bare-knuckle politics underscores just how far the populist firebrand will go to retain his grip on power.
"Ledezma won city hall, and the votes he received are worth as much as those for Hugo Chávez," said Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and government critic. "Taking over city hall and various offices of the mayor, expelling people and preventing workers from entering is not just a violation but a clear case of not recognizing electoral results favorable to Antonio Ledezma."
Until last week, the three-story neoclassic building in Caracas known as the Municipal Palace was covered in graffiti. Windows were shattered, and the front door was padlocked. Messages spray-painted on the outer walls read "Ledezma fascist" and "This is Chavista territory."
One slogan in particular summed up the power struggle here: "We are bad losers."
"In sports terminology, we won the game, but the sports authorities decided we did not win, that we had lost," said Carlos Melo, director of the city's athletic facilities, many of which were transferred to federal control days before the election. "They kept the installations. They took over the buildings and the offices. It is a violation of the elemental norms of the democratic game. Everywhere else, whoever loses gives in."
In Ledezma, the government faces one of its most strident opponents. A former governor and mayor, the raspy-voiced leader has spent years publicly comparing Chávez's government to Fidel Castro's Communist regime in Cuba and has lobbied for a boycott of elections.
Speaking on state television Tuesday, Chávez said Ledezma and other opposition politicians elected in November had assumed their new posts accompanied by violent mobs. He said they had sacked workers at random, part of what he called a plot that could lead to his own ouster.
"They want me off the map — check to the king," Chávez said.
Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El Aissami said this week that Ledezma had simply abandoned his mayoral post. "He has not gone to work," El Aissami said at a news conference. "He is dedicated to other things other than what he was elected to do." El Aissami said that there had been no takeover of city buildings but that "a labor conflict" was roiling municipal politics because Ledezma was firing thousands of workers.
In one of the buildings occupied by Chávez supporters, Nelsiy Rojas was among those left jobless. She charged that Ledezma wanted workers who supported his anti-government line. But she also readily admitted that her work had entailed campaigning for the president's programs in the barrios.
"Ledezma dismissed 7,200 workers from city hall simply because he is not in agreement with our work in the communities, which is to encourage the revolutionary process, among other things," Rojas said.
Highly politicized work atmosphere
City workers who remain on the job described the work atmosphere under the previous government as highly politicized and said they were pressured to attend pro-government marches. They also said that while many employees tried to do their jobs, agencies across the city government became top-heavy with contract workers who held what in essence were no-show jobs.
"There were some honest people, those who were full-time permanent workers, but the majority of the contract workers were doctrinaire," said José Gregorio Tovar, who works in human resources and opposes Chávez's government.
In an interview, Ledezma said he was elected to run a city facing skyrocketing crime, including a homicide rate that is among the world's highest, and everyday problems ranging from garbage-strewn streets to substandard schools. The new mayor, who is governing from a nearby office tower, said one of his first moves has been to form a commission to determine the extent of irregularities during his predecessor's tenure.
So far, officials have found that of the 40,000 workers on the city's payroll, about 8,600 were paid up to $1,500 a month to carry out the orders of the central government, said Richard Blanco, the city's No. 2 official. He said that an unknown number of them were deployed in motorcycle squads to intimidate government foes, including university students and managers of private TV stations critical of the president.
"They contracted friends of the government who, instead of resolving serious problems, generated major problems," Blanco said.
'Bunch of vagabonds'
Ledezma has declared that those on the political payroll have no place in city hall, saying that they were covered under a contract that expired in December — and that only those who can show they were carrying out city duties would have their contracts renewed.
"You do work, while a bunch of vagabonds got paid without working," Ledezma bellowed into a microphone at a recent meeting with city workers whose jobs were not affected. "And that cannot be permitted."
Ledezma is not the only politician facing hurdles set up by the central government. In November's elections, for the first time since Chávez took power, opposition candidates scored wins in populous, economically key states and cities. In the days that followed, they began to pay the price.
In the western border state of Tachira, the government-controlled assembly refused to swear in the governor-elect, César Pérez Vivas, for two months. He has since taken office but still does not have control of the police. In Miranda state, the new governor, Henrique Capriles Radonski, saw oversight of hospitals transferred to the state.
No one, though, has faced as many obstacles as Ledezma, who oversees a $1.2 billion budget and four large municipal districts. Among the frustrated officials is Ángel Rangel, who oversees civil protection operations in Caracas. He said he and his staff found city vehicles, paperwork and computer files missing. And then they were ousted from their offices.
"They destroyed the building, all the contents inside. They destroyed the previous information for the last four years," he said.
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