Congressman Accuses Chavez Family of Graft Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, has spent much of his decade in power preaching about giving more to the poor and raging about the graft of the country's previous leaders. But critics say corruption is flourishing once again nd one former Chavez supporter says the president's family is benefitting.
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Congressman Accuses Chavez Family of Graft

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Congressman Accuses Chavez Family of Graft

Congressman Accuses Chavez Family of Graft

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Next to Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has spent a decade in power. One of his core messages, the corruption of the country's previous leaders. But critics say graft is flourishing once again in Venezuela, and one former Chavez supporter, a young congressman, says some of the chief beneficiaries of that corruption are in the president's own family.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Barinas, Venezuela.

JUAN FORERO: Wilmer Azuaje is impulsive and looks younger than his 31 years, but he's a member of Hugo Chavez' congress, which overwhelmingly supports the president, and Azuaje says he's on a serious mission.

Representative WILMER AZUAJE (Congressman, Venezuela): (Speaking foreign language).

FORERO: He speaks a mile a minute while driving at breakneck speeds across the hot, flat plains of Barinas in southwestern Venezuela. His charge: that Chavez and his family broke their pledge to root out corruption.

Rep. AZUAJE: (Through translator) That promise from nine or 10 years ago was never kept here in Barinas. It's the Chavez' rule here, the nepotism, the owners of Barinas.

FORERO: The congressman is among a host of critics who say members of the Chavez family have been buying large farms and hiding their stakes in them, possibly because the properties were purchased with public funds.

The Chavezes deny the charges. Driving through farm country, Azuaje stops to ask peasant farmers where the Chavez family's farms are located.

Rep. AZUAJE: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language).

FORERO: Despite the Chavezes' denials, most farmers say they know exactly where. This makes Azuaje giddy.

Rep. AZUAJE: (Through translator) I've told you, in all of the communities, people know where their farms are.

FORERO: In the town of Santa Lucia, Azuaje barges into a meeting of peasant leaders, people strongly supportive of the government.

(Soundbite of applause)

FORERO: To the sounds of applause, Azuaje accuses the Chavez family of accumulating big farms while the peasants have nothing. Farmer Jose Heel couldn't agree more.

Mr. JOSE HEEL (Farmer, Venezuela): (Through translator) It should be investigated, and those lands should be expropriated and given to us because they're not productive now.

FORERO: Argenis Chavez(ph) is one of the president's five brothers. He's secretary of state in Barinas, and he's also known for his singing. He's even made a CD.

(Soundbite of song, "Pretty Barinas")

Mr. ARGENIS CHAVEZ (Secretary of State, Barinas, Venezuela): (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: Standing outside a radio station minutes after completing his weekly talk show, he took time out to sing for NPR. The song: "Pretty Barinas," a classic here.

He also attracts crowds who know he can deliver social programs and grants. He said he and his brothers do not own large tracts of farmland or farms whose titles are registered in the names of front men, nor are he and his brothers living like kings as Congressman Azuaje claims.

Mr. CHAVEZ: (Through translator) I have shirts, pants, those types of things but nothing to do with airplanes, yachts and shopping malls, farms, Hummers. It's easy to check.

FORERO: Argenis Chavez says Wilmer Azuaje is making the accusations to gain cheap political points. Indeed, Azuaje is running for governor, a post now held by the president's father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez.

Louis Vicente Leon(ph) is a pollster and political analyst. He says some Chavistas, as the president's allies are known, have their eye on November's regional elections and are wielding the corruption allegations against their opponents, fellow Chavistas.

Mr. LOUIS VICENTE LEON (Pollster, Political Analyst, Venezuela): The government of Chavez is full of corruption. The interesting thing is that a lot of people is talking about that inside the Chavistas because they are fighting against each other.

The important thing about corruption is that the corruption is dividing the Chavistas.

FORERO: And Azuaje's political ambitions have some people here suspicious about his motives like Astorio Tablante(ph), a subsistence farmer.

Mr. ASTORIO TABLANTE (Farmer, Venezuela): (Speaking in foreign language)

FORERO: He says he has nothing against the Chavez family and isn't keen on an investigation. Azuaje is not deterred. After a day touring the countryside, Azuaje invited friends to his home for beers, and he boasted that his voice is better than Argenis Chavez'. Then he tried to prove it.

(Soundbite of song, "Pretty Barinas")

Rep. AZUAJE: (Singing) (Speaking in foreign language)

FORERO: Ironically, it's the same song Argenis Chavez sang about the bounties of Barinas.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Barinas, Venezuela.

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