Mérida, March 28, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com)- The Comptroller's Commission of the Venezuelan National Assembly launched investigations this week into accusations that Argenis and Narciso Chávez, two brothers of President Hugo Chávez, used front persons to purchase several farms in the western state of Barinas, where their father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, is governor.
The accusations were made by the National Assembly legislator and former leader of the pro-Chávez party Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR) Wilmer Azuaje, who is currently a member of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and a possible candidate for governor of Barinas in the regional elections scheduled for November.
The vice president of the Comptroller's Commission, Geovanni Peña, was also heeded in his call for an investigation of the financing of Azuaje's campaign for governor, in particular a series of expensive advertisements and Azuaje's alleged negligence of legislative duties.
After the National Assembly gave the green light to both investigations, Cilia Flores, the President of the National Assembly, proclaimed "we have always been open to any and all accusations… if there is proof, mechanisms can be activated," concluding that an investigation of the accusations of both parties is "the most healthy thing."
In a similar tone, Azuaje commented that "we are open to any enquiry… the most beautiful and transparent thing among politicians is that they investigate all of us."
Azuaje alleges that Nestor Izarra, an employee of Governor Chávez's ranch called La Chavera, bought a 1.4 million acre farm called La Malagueña in September 2006 at a price of 800,000 bolivars ($372,000) as a front man for Argenis Chávez. He says similar illicit farm purchasing was carried out for Chávez by Vilma Báez, a contractor for the Barinas state government and former director of the regional office of the National Nutrition Institute.
"This cannot be socialism," Azuaje asserted, and asked that the Comptroller`s Commission travel to Barinas and speak with those involved in the contracts to verify how Izarra and Báez were able to pay for the farms. He also denounced that the roadways in and around the farms owned by Chávez family members are better kept than statewide roads.
Izarra's lawyer affirmed this week that Izarra is the owner of the La Malagueña farm and that Izarra bought the farm with personal funds earned "from his own hard work."
Argenis Chávez claimed he sold the only farm he ever owned 5 years ago. He insisted that not only Azuaje, but also the two other possible candidates for governor, Frenchy Díaz and Julio Cesar Reyes, should be investigated for campaign finance irregularities.
The three candidates, according to Argenis Chávez, made a pact that if one of them jumps ahead in the polls this May the other two will resign and support the top candidate's bid. Allegedly, the three have spent large quantities of money to consolidate their power and exclude candidates such as the President's brother, who is reported to have jockeyed fiercely with Reyes, who is currently the mayor of the city of Barinas, for leadership positions among pro-Chávez parties including the PSUV.
According to Argenis Chávez, the conduct of Azuaje, Reyes, and Díaz shows sufficient "lack of discipline," to justify their expulsion from the PSUV.
National Assembly Legislator Gonzalo Gualdrón, a PSUV member who seconded Peña's call for an investigation of the Azuaje campaign, said "Azuaje`s conduct is unbecoming for a revolutionary socialist because of its ostentatiousness."
Azuaje has told the press that he is "not afraid" of any investigation of his campaign, but said it would be unconstitutional because as a National Assembly legislator he has immunity, according to Article 200 of Venezuela's constitution.
Article 200 says that only the Supreme Court can strip a legislator of immunity if solicited to do so by two thirds of the National Assembly. However, the National Assembly has asked the attorney general office to interpret whether Azuaje's campaign for governor falls outside his immunity as a legislator, since Article 200 specifies that immunity only applies "in the exercise of [their] functions."
The defense lawyer for the Chávez brothers, Miguel Azán, declared that Azuaje himself should renounce his immunity in order to even up the battlefield of accusations. Flores echoed this call in a press round outside the National Assembly Tuesday.
The United Socialist Block of the National Assembly, of which Azuaje is a member, met Thursday and declared that Azuaje is "working alone, without the block," according to the Legislator Mario Isea, the coordinator of the block.
Isea further expressed suspicion that Azuaje is using his accusations before the National Assembly as tool to strengthen his campaign for governor in Barinas.
Isea's sentiment was shared by Flores, who interrupted Azuaje during his testimony before the assembly. "Excuse me, legislator, this is not the setting for you to carry out your campaign, I know that you are a candidate for governor," Flores asserted.
Azuaje was quoted in new reports declaring that he will be "governor of Barinas starting November 23, there is not doubt about it."