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Venezuela opposition in crosshairs

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AP

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, right, gestures to supporters of President Hugo Chavez as Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, left, looks on after a session by lawmakers at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela.

Caracas -

As cancer-stricken Hugo Chavez's convalescence drags on, his government is stepping up attacks on the opposition and closing ranks to dispel any appearance of a power vacuum.

The National Assembly, controlled by lawmakers loyal to Chavez, opened a corruption probe on Tuesday into two members of the Justice First party, accusing them of illegally accepting campaign donations without reporting them.

The party is led by Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez defeated in presidential elections back in October.

Last month the government said far right groups in Venezuela and abroad were planning an attack against Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked political heir, and the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.

The vice president has also accused Capriles of conspiring against the country from Colombia, where he met with former Spanish prime minister Felipe Gonzalez.

Chavez underwent his fourth round of cancer surgery in Havana on December 11, and since then has neither been seen nor heard, a dramatic departure for the flamboyant leader who had been a near-constant presence in state-run media.

Even among the Latin American leaders who have gone to Cuba to offer their well-wishes to Chavez, none has claimed to have seen him.

Maduro and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua visited Chavez on Wednesday in Havana, the government said.

But it released no photo of Chavez, instead putting out photos of each man holding religious statues that were gifts for the ailing president, who is 58.

Chavez was supposed to have been sworn in January but was too sick to travel to Caracas, and the ceremony was postponed indefinitely.

The longer Chavez is absent, the greater the risk that people will perceive a power vacuum and start to look for an alternative leadership for the oil-rich nation, said Luis Vicente Leon, of the consulting firm Datanalisis.

The government is trying to “frighten the adversary so as to undermine it and send concrete messages to the effect that there is no power vacuum,” and that it can be tougher than Chavez himself, Leon said.

Capriles denied the corruption allegations against his party colleagues and said the offensive was in fact aimed at him.

“Make no mistake. They are coming after me,” he said on Wednesday.

With Chavez out of the picture, the two most visible faces of Chavez's populist movement are Maduro and Cabello.

They say the opposition is trying to turn them against each other as rivals to succeed Chavez. So they are acting almost in unison in attacking the opposition as a way to show a united front and close ranks.

“This ruling duo want to be more 'chavista' than Chavez - tougher, less tolerant, looking both outward and inside the country,” Vladimir Villegas, a formerly pro-Chavez journalist and politician who has turned against Chavez, wrote in the newspaper El Nacional.

“This is their way of making up for the president's absence,” he added. - Sapa-AFP


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