Chavez's Blacklist of Venezuelan Opposition Intimidates Voters

April 17 (Bloomberg) -- In the two years since she signed a petition that forced a recall vote on President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan lawyer Rocio San Miguel says she lost her government job, colleagues became afraid to talk to her, and her husband, a pilot, was taken off active duty from the Air Force.

``It was a witch hunt,'' said San Miguel, 39. Last month she and two other Foreign Ministry employees filed a complaint with the Organization of American States alleging their political rights were violated when they were fired. The case is pending.

The practice of denying government jobs to some of the 3.4 million Venezuelans who signed the petition has intimidated voters and will help Chavez win re-election in December, said Riordan Roett, an international studies professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Blacklisting critics is effective in part because the government and state-run companies employ about 20 percent of workers in the South American country. Chavez, 51, also has stacked the Supreme Court with his backers, stripped landowners of farm land he deems ``underutilized'' and determined who can buy dollars at a preferential government-set exchange rate.

The names on the petition became public after the electoral council gave access to Luis Tascon, a congressman in Chavez's coalition, so the government could check for fraudulent signatures. Tascon created a Web site that posted the names.

The so-called Tascon's List was then used by officials to ensure the people who signed the petition wouldn't be hired by the government and in some cases would be fired, said San Miguel.

Phone calls to presidential spokeswoman Marisol Contreras seeking comment weren't returned. Ilia Azpurua, a legal adviser to Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who fired San Miguel and her colleagues, declined to comment. Tascon, 37, didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

Thousands Fired

Thousands of people who signed the petition have been fired from the civil service and taken out of the running for government contracts, said Alejandro Plaz, president of Sumate, a civic action group that led the failed recall effort.

Maria Verdeal, a government lawyer who says she was fired for signing the petition, last year formed a support group, ``The Movement to Defend the Signers.''

``Those on the list will never get an important position or contract,'' Plaz said. ``That's a pretty powerful incentive not to vote against him.''

Plaz and three other Sumate directors face up to 16 years in jail for charges they illegally accepted $31,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, a group financed in part by the U.S. government.

Maisanta List

Chavez, an ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro who refers to U.S. President George W. Bush as ``Mr. Danger,'' has been at odds with the U.S. for the past seven years.

Venezuela's president, who entered politics after leading an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, reiterated March 19 his claim that Bush wants to overthrow him and invade Venezuela, one of the top four suppliers of oil to the U.S. The U.S. denied the accusations as recently as Dec. 9.

At an April 15, 2005, cabinet meeting, Chavez said his government had been using a list to determine who to hire and fire and called for an end to the practice.

``There are still places that use Tascon's List to determine who gets a job and who doesn't,'' Chavez told his ministers that day, in remarks broadcast from the eastern city of Puerto Ordaz. ``That's over. Bury Tascon's List. Surely it had an important role at one time, but not now.''

Chavez's appeal didn't stop the blacklisting, Plaz said. Soon the Maisanta List began circulating. Named after Chavez's great-grandfather, a general who revolted against the dictatorship of General Juan Vicente Gomez in 1914, the Maisanta List incorporated more information on people, such as whether they participate in government-sponsored social programs, Plaz said.


Domenico Tuccinardi, who served as the chief observer of the congressional elections in December for the European Union, said ``political forces'' are using the Maisanta List ``as a tool to pressure and intimidate the electorate.''

Chavez's coalition members swept all 167 national congressional seats in the December vote after most opposition party candidates backed out of the race, saying they didn't trust the electoral council to carry out a fair vote.

``The election process is a total fraud,'' Roett said in a telephone interview from Baltimore. ``If voters believe the process is secret, they will vote. If not, they will not.''

The extent of Chavez's intimidation was documented in a movie called: ``The List: A Society Under Suspicion,'' which was released in February by Ciudadania Activa, a not-for-profit organization. The documentary draws attention to how Chavez in February 2005 mocked those people who had been blacklisted.

That month, Chavez, on a weekly television show, called Congressman Tascon up on the stage with him.

``Do you remember Tascon's Web page?'' Chavez, grinning, asked the live audience. ``People are afraid of Tascon's Web page.''

When Tascon arrived on stage, Chavez greeted him by asking: ``Now I don't appear on your list, do I?''