Water controversy erupts in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a press conference in Caracas on December 6, 2011.

Story highlights

  • President Hugo Chavez calls claims of contaminated water "media terrorism"
  • Venezuela's attorney general says critics are trying to cause "confict and chaos'
  • "They are not recognizing the probelm," one activist says
  • Chavez's party expels one governor who says drinking water may be polluted
Governors of several Venezuelan states have warned that recent oil spills and other contamination could be polluting local drinking water.
But President Hugo Chavez counters that the officials' criticisms and media reports on the water controversy are propaganda in the political battle against him.
"If it isn't war, it is media terrorism. This is very serious. It is an attack on the physical and mental health of a people, of a community. This is a crime," Chavez said this week, saying authorities should prosecute those responsible.
On Thursday, Venezuela's attorney general said a court had issued an injunction requiring media to "act with extreme responsibly" and present evidence when broadcasting information about the country's water, saying that past reports on contamination were presented without proof in order to cause panic.
"They have no technical evidence. They are doing it to foster negative opinions, not to help the population. If you say something is happening and it is untrue, what can you generate? Conflict and chaos," Attorney General Luisa Ortega said.
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Critics say the government should analyze what could be causing drinking water problems, rather than investigating those who have expressed concerns.
"There have been a wave of attacks from the national government. ... What worries us is not only that they are not recognizing the problem, but that they want to censor the people who denounce it," said Edison Duran, general director of the Movement for Water Quality. "The government, unfortunately, treats any denouncement of anything wrong as a political attack, and disqualifies it as a media campaign."
Monagas Gov. Jose Gregorio Briceno has argued that federal officials aren't being forthcoming about what could be a serious risk to the population. The governor has said public health is his primary concern.
"I would prefer that the people are healthy, that no one is sick, that no one has cancer or any kind of illness, instead of being irresponsible," he told CNN affiliate Globovision.
Briceno has been at the center of the political and environmental controversy over the water supply since last month, when an oil pipeline ruptured in the Guarapiche River, which runs through his state.
Federal officials have said Venezuela's state oil company has cleaned up 95% of the oil that flowed into the river, and the water in the area is safe to drink.
But the governor repeatedly expressed concerns over the drinking water supply, and another rupture emerged in public view -- this time within the ranks of Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Last week, party leaders expelled Briceno "for willing, serious offenses derived from unethical and counter-revolutionary positions," state media reported.
Two opposition governors in other states have also expressed concerns about water in recent weeks.
"We call on the national government to declare an emergency in the whole water system because ... there is no guarantee that the water going to the homes in the center of the country is drinkable," said Henrique Salas Feo, governor of Carabobo state, alleging that drinking water from a reservoir was contaminated.
In Zulia state, Gov. Pablo Perez said an oil spill in neighboring Colombia had contaminated a lake.
But Chavez maintained that the officials' concerns and media reports have no credibility.
"It's a disgrace. It is a great lie," he said.