Legal and political eyes across the Americas are turned to Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez must decide whether to respect a decision by the Inter-American Human Rights Court (CIDH) and allow a major opposition figure to run against him next year.

The CIDH ruled last Friday that the Chávez government violated the political rights of a top presidential contender – Leopoldo López – when it prevented him from holding office two years ago. The Costa Rica-based court ordered Venezuela's electoral council (CNE) not to block any efforts by López should he want to run in future elections.

The Venezuelan opposition is celebrating the ruling as an unprecedented legal victory. Venezuela's Supreme Court will have the final say-so because "we are a free and sovereign nation," Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said.

López, 40, a former mayor of the wealthy Caracas suburb of Chacao, was barred from holding office after the country's comptroller released a report alleging a host of allegedly irregularities. López, one of Chávez's outspoken critics, said the government was trying to frame him to prevent him from running for president. He has never been put on trial.

Chávez has given no indication whether he will obey the ruling. On Saturday, he accused the court of siding with the coup plotters who tried to overthrow him in April 2002, El Universal reported.

"To me, that court is worth nothing. For the political left it's nothing," he said during a meeting with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was in Caracas. "My haircut is worth more to me than that court," he added in reference to his now almost bald scalp. Chávez is currently ongoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer.

López fired back. "Chávez is afraid of me," he told noted journalist Roberto Giusti. "If he doesn't allow me to run it shows just how afraid his government is."

CNE president Socorro Hernández said it was absurd for López to argue that the government had trampled on his rights "when he has been appearing every day in the media." She added that it is not up to the CNE to decide whether López can run. That decision will instead be made by the Supreme Court or the Comptroller's Office, she explained in a radio interview.

Reaction to the CIDH ruling was divided along official lines in Venezuela. Some legal experts say Venezuela's constitution obliges it to obey international rulings. Not adhering to the court's ruling would also mean "disenfranchising" a large section of voters, said Gustavo Briceño Vivas, president of the Venezuelan chapter of the Latin American Ombudsman Institute.

López's Voluntad Popular party will officially proclaim his candidacy for next year's race on Saturday at a mass gathering in Caracas. If he is allowed to run, he will still have to square off against other opposition contenders in February. The winner will face Chávez at the ballot box in October 2012. Except for two days in April 2001, when Chávez was temporarily toppled in a coup, he has held Venezuela's presidency since 1999.

-Martin Delfín

Photo - Wikipedia