Merida, June 15th, 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan courts have issued an arrest warrant for Guillermo Zuloaga, president and 70% owner of the opposition news channel Globovision, in connection with irregularities with his car dealership. In reaction, the U.S. government and international and national private media are accusing the Venezuelan government of suppressing the right to free speech. Zuloaga has refused to turn himself in and is rumoured to have fled the country.
Attorney General Luisa Ortega announced on Friday that the court has issued arrest warrants for Guillermo Zuloaga and his son, Guillermo Zuloaga Siso, for conspiracy and generic usury.
Conspiracy in Venezuela’s penal code, refers to two or more people who associate in order to commit crimes, while generic usury is an act of hiding or covering up facts in order to obtain a very disproportionate advantage. The first incurs a sentence of two to five years jail, while the second, one to three years.
Ortega told the press that once the two men presented themselves in court, the court would determine if it would detain the men or give them restraining orders instead.
In June last year police found 24 luxury vehicles and SUVs on Zuloaga’s property, following a phoned in tip. Ortega said the cars were being stored there in order to be sold later at a higher price. Both men were accused of the crimes in June 2009 and were issued restraining orders.
The minister of commerce at the time, Eduardo Saman, also examined irregular documents belonging to the administrators of Toyosand and Toyoclub, with which the Zuloagas have links.
There is now a prohibition against Zuloaga from leaving the country.
Until now, Zuloaga had refused to turn himself in. However he rang Globovision on Monday from an undisclosed location, and said on air that he was the “victim of a political witch hunt by Chavez”.
“I have arrived at the conclusion that my surrender won’t be good for the country, for Globovision, nor for my family,” he said.
He also made the remark that Chavez “shouldn’t hide behind the skirts of [National Assembly President] Cilia Flores, [Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) President] Luisa Estela Morales, and [Attorney General] Luisa Ortega Diaz.
U.S and private media criticisms
U.S State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said the U.S was “seriously concerned, in Venezuela, about the arrest order for Guillermo Zuloaga… This is the latest example of the government of Venezuela’s continuing assault on the freedom of the press.” The Venezuelan Attorney General, who is appointed by the National Assembly and is independent of the executive branch of government, issued the arrest warrant.
While Crowley said the U.S did not plan to take the case to the Organisation of American States (OAS) he said, “We have had discussions within the OAS about having it play a more active role in terms of reporting on, you know, situations which we feel are in contravention of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
Globovision, in a press release, called the proceedings against Zuloaga “irregular” and claimed that, “unfortunately, giving an opinion and dissenting have converted into a crime in Venezuela. Guillermo Zuloaga is being punished for what is reported by Globovision, media that has maintained, despite a hard campaign of official aggression, an independent editorial line. Zuloaga is paying the price for this… for the only crime of being president of Globovision.”
Most private foreign and local media have also portrayed the arrest warrant as an attempt by President Hugo Chavez to silence the television station, claiming the government is generally trying to stifle freedom of speech.
For example, Reuters headlined with “Chavez turns up heat on Globovision in Venezuela” and opened the article with, “Venezuela’s government is cranking up the pressure on the Globovision television network, the last major national broadcaster to hold an editorial stance opposing President Hugo Chavez.”
Seven of out 10 of the biggest newspapers in Venezuela are openly opposition, and estimates of private control of television airwaves range between 75% and 95%.
Venezuelan government clamp down on crime and corruption
The arrest warrant for Zuloaga is not an isolated case. Over the last year the government has gone on a concerted effort to investigate, temporarily take over, apply fines, decommission, and even nationalise a range of companies and operations for speculation, hoarding, and related crimes.
According to official figures, so far this year government institutions have carried out over 100,000 audits of commercial establishments and found 28,000 with some kind of irregularity, of which 3,900 were closed and 18 are in a process of expropriation.
This includes the recent arrest of Luis Pulido, former head of PDVAL, a state provider of subsidised food, along with other company officials. Pulido was charged with hoarding, after officials found 2,334 containers with expired food in storage facilities.
Chavez, commenting on the Zuloaga case on Sunday, argued that arrest warrants basically meant that the person must present themselves to the authorities. “For me, Luis Pulido and Zuloaga are innocent, you have to presume innocence,” said Chavez.
Justice, “should be equal for everyone,” he said.