The 33 Venezuelan Mayors Who Face Charges (And Oppose The President) : Parallels President Nicolas Maduro's government hasn't solved food shortages or ended high inflation. It's been more effective in cracking down on the opposition, filing legal charges against many mayors.
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The 33 Venezuelan Mayors Who Face Charges (And Oppose The President)

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The 33 Venezuelan Mayors Who Face Charges (And Oppose The President)

The 33 Venezuelan Mayors Who Face Charges (And Oppose The President)

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While much of the focus of that summit will be on the U.S. and Cuba, Venezuela will also be on the agenda. Last month, the U.S. targeted top Venezuelan officials with new sanctions tied to human rights violations. The country's also in crisis, experiencing food shortages and ballooning inflation. And opposition leaders are now being targeted by the government of President Nicolas Maduro. John Otis reports several politicians have been thrown in prison.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Among those recently jailed is two-term Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.

MITZI LEDEZMA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At Ledezma's private office, his wife, Mitzi, describes how masked government agents in February forced their way in, shattering a glass door. Ledezma was hauled off to prison for allegedly plotting against President Maduro. But legal analysts say his government has yet to provide any solid evidence. Mitzi Ledezma describes the raid as a kidnapping.

LEDEZMA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They didn't even have an arrest warrant," she tells me. "And let's not forget, we're talking about the mayor of Caracas." Yet, that big job title doesn't mean much anymore. Venezuela's ruling Socialist Party controls all branches of government and is showing less tolerance for dissent. Political analysts say that when opposition candidates manage to win city or statewide races, the government tries to sabotage them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OTIS: For example, shortly after Ledezma took the oath of office in 2008, pro-government mobs took over the colonial city hall building in central Caracas and refused to let the new mayor go to work. Helen Fernandez, a Ledezma aide who now serves as acting mayor, recalls the scene.

HELEN FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They threw rocks and chased us with clubs," she says. "There were gunshots and tear gas. The violence got so bad that we had to leave." Ledezma and his team relocated to the 23rd floor of this bank tower in downtown Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT NOISE)

OTIS: Many people who work in the high-rise have no idea city hall is located there, perhaps because it doesn't do very much. That's because ruling party legislators, in 2009, passed a law stripping Caracas city hall of nearly all of its budget and responsibilities.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One of the few programs Ledezma's office still runs is the distribution of water tanks to poor families. With her boss behind bars, acting Mayor Fernandez overseas these duties in a Caracas slum.

FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: Nearly all other city functions are handled by an unelected city manager named Ernesto Villegas, who was not available for comment. Villegas, it turns out, was appointed to the job by President Maduro just two days after losing to Ledezma in the 2013 mayoral race.

MILOS ALCALAY: That is something that I've never heard in any other country in the world. OK, you lost the election? Don't worry, my friend. You are still the mayor of Caracas.

OTIS: Milos Alcalay handles international relations for city hall. He claims that as the president's popularity sinks, the Maduro government is resorting to drastic measures to prevent the opposition from picking up steam. Of the 78 opposition mayors in Venezuela, 33 face legal charges brought against them by the Maduro government. Three mayors, as well as opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, have been imprisoned on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges.

NELSON BARRIO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: However, the opposition can also play rough. At this state-run grocery store, where people are standing in line to buy subsidized food, I met Nelson Barrio, who wears a red Socialist Party T-shirt.

BARRIO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Barrio briefly worked for Ledezma in the 1990s when he served as mayor of a district of Caracas. Barrio says that he and 800 other workers were fired because they didn't belong to Ledezma's political party.

BARRIO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Venezuelan politics have always been hard-core," he says. But back at the mayor's damaged private office, Mitzi Ledezma claims that the arrest of her husband marks a new low.

LEDEZMA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "The government will have to build a lot more prisons," she says, "because the opposition is getting bigger by the day." For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Caracas, Venezuela.

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