CARACAS (Reuters) - Government wire-tapping of opposition leaders may conjure up images of Soviet-bloc police states, but in the Venezuela of President Hugo Chavez it’s the stuff of state TV commercials.
The Chavez government has turned a barrage of tapped conversations into tongue-in-cheek advertisements slamming the leftist leader’s rivals before tough regional elections on Sunday in which a handful of his allies are likely to lose governorships.
One set of state TV spots features recordings of opposition leader Manuel Rosales discussing campaign finance or the purchase of expensive jewelry along with slapstick sound effects and pictures of rings and a Cartier watch.
Another state TV ad replays a conversation of Rosales negotiating the purchase of cattle to a backdrop of mooing sounds and cartoon pictures of coins.
“They use shameful systems to get information, but that’s their problem — I’m relaxed,” said Rosales.
Despite the strangely playful twist on spying, Chavez’s latest tactic is in keeping with his intimidation of opponents and helps fire up his support base among the majority poor.
Chavez, who calls ex-Cuban leader Fidel Castro his mentor and has supporters controlling Venezuela’s courts, Congress and the ubiquitous state oil company, has said he is determined to have “mafia boss” Rosales imprisoned.
Venezuelans are unsurprised by the eavesdropping.
Rosales dismisses Chavez’s attacks as an attempt to distract voters’ attention from the government’s failure to rein in rampant crime or perform basic tasks such as garbage collection.
Pollsters say voters may back the opposition for up to a third of the OPEC nation’s governorships as support for Chavez’s self-styled socialist revolution has eroded from four years ago when his allies won 20 of 22 states.
Chavez’s most vocal critics liken his eavesdropping campaign tactics to Stalinist police-state surveillance. But some of those being tapped say the effort is more about electoral politics than creating a Big Brother spy network.
“I tell my friends in the government the day I stop talking on the phone is when they should worry,” said Teodoro Petkoff, an opposition newspaper editor. Two of his recent phone conversations have been repeatedly played over state airwaves.
“This is not a Cuba-style police state, we don’t live under the G2, or the Stasi or the Gestapo,” he said, referring to the secret police of Cuba, East Germany and Nazi Germany.
Chavez earlier this year decreed an intelligence law requiring citizens to inform on one another but withdrew it in an unusual about-face after withering opposition criticism.
He has urged his followers, some of whom work as the waiters or maids of his wealthier rivals, to eavesdrop on conversations and pass along the juicy gossip.
“Sometimes in restaurants or hotels they are talking and they just don’t realize the waiter is listening,” Chavez told supporters. “Sometimes they don’t realize the chauffeur is listening and he’s one of ours.”
Petkoff, who says all the phones in his cramped office are tapped, doesn’t doubt Chavez has his network of moles.
“But is it of the dimension he says? I really don’t think so,” said Petkoff with a dismissive wave of his hands.
Additional reporting by Patricia Rondon, writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Saul Hudson and Kieran Murray