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Venezuelan Democracy Under Threat

18 December 2002

In the past few weeks Venezuela has been under threat of a Bush/oil/Miami mafia inspired coup – or now, since the government seems to have overcome the threat of a coup, the real danger is that of a US/OAS (Organisation of American States) “democratic” intervention. Since Monday 2 December an opposition strike (really a bosses’ lockout) has tried to shut down the country´s economy, the media have become ever more hysterical in their denunciations of President Chávez’ “dictatorship”, well-heeled demonstrators from the posh neighbourhoods of Caracas make nightly protests banging pots and pans and blocking roads and motorways, and dissident military officers dismissed after the April coup call on their comrades-in-arms to rise up against “the crazy man in Miraflores” (the presidential palace) and his “Castro-communism”. Every day the media demand Chávez’ resignation and predict that his fall is imminent, in a vicious campaign of lies, distortions and incitement to subversion which is unparalleled in intensity. This has certainly been effective with much of the middle class, whose hysterical anti-Chávez demonstrations have earned them the epithet of escuálidos (dirty or squalid) from government supporters.

Chávez hangs on

But Chávez has not fallen, and after nearly a fortnight of this massive opposition offensive it seems unlikely that he will fall any time soon, if at all. Even before the lockout began the government had shown its strength by decreeing military control of the Metropolitan Caracas Police, hitherto controlled by opposition mayor Alfredo Peña and notorious for their brutal treatment of chavistas and of the poor in general. When the lockout began, the government responded by using the military to set up`popular markets to distribute cheap food in lower-class areas of the cities, showing that it would not allow merchants and employers to create artificial scarcity and panic. Shopping centres and most businesses in middle and upper-class areas closed down, but in poor areas shops stayed open and street traders have been having a hayday.

Oil and sabotage

The opposition, led by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS) and the corrupt CTV union federation, quickly escalated the conflict by trying to paralyse the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). Although nominally nationalised since the 1970s, PDVSA is in fact run by a clique of privileged managers closely linked to the multinationals and to the former governing party Acción Democrática (AD). On 4 December these managers declared themselves in support of the “national strike”, and were immediately joined by the captains of Venezuelan oil tankers who struck anchor and refused to move. (Strangely, the country does not have a domestic oil pipeline and petrol is distributed by ship from the major oil-producing areas to various ports along the coast). Owners of fleets of road tankers also shut down their businesses and the result was the amazing spectacle of a major oil-producing country about to be paralysed by lack of petrol.

But Chávez’ response was immediate: the military were sent in to keep the oil refineries running, the rebellious ship captains were dismissed and the navy was sent to take control, fines were imposed on striking road hauliers and the military requisitioned the vehicles. Finally, the President bit the bullet and did what many people thought he should have done in April: he dismissed the top management of PDVSA and centralised control in the Minister of Energy and Mines (and former head of OPEC) Alí Rodríguez. Despite an outcry in the media and intensified street protests by the opposition, the measures seem to be working and life is returning to normal. Although a week after the conflict began another blow has been struck for the opposition by the banks which have also partially closed down (they are opening with very limited hours), most businesses are open, Caracas has its normal chaotic traffic and the government has clearly won.

Media terrorism

A crucial element in the opposition campaign throughout has been the role of the media. It is often said that the Venezuelan media are biased against Chávez, but this does not begin to convey the extent of their involvement. Four of the five main TV channels, and 90% of the press, have become a prime political instrument of opposition in a way never before seen anywhere. Normal TV programming has been suspended and opposition activities are not simply reported but systematically promoted almost 24 hours a day. Every development in the bosses’ strike was enthusiastically reported (and exaggerated) minute by minute. Of course when the government suggests taking action against this pernicious abuse of media power the OAS and international media accuse Chávez of threatening freedom of expression. But this is not journalism, it is subversion and would be cause for legal sanctions in almost any other country.

Subversion and terror

There should be no illusions about what has happened in the past fortnight: Venezuelan workers were not on strike, nor do the opposition have overwhelming public support as the media claim, and this was not a valiant democratic campaign for free elections against an autocratic government. On the contrary, the country has been subjected to a systematic plan of sabotage and subversion designed to provoke chaos and justify a coup or an intervention by the US under the “Democratic Charter” of the OAS (Organisation of American States). This was a re-run of events leading up to the April coup, when a similar lockout and conflict centred on PDVSA culminated in a mass opposition march on the presidential palace and a mysterious shoot-out causing over 20 deaths, which were immediately blamed on Chávez and served as the pretext for the April 11 coup. The coup leaders (and the world) were astonished by the massive response of the Venezuelan people who took to the streets to demand the release of Chávez and the swift action of the loyal majority in the military leading to his restoration on April 13-14. But the government’s extreme tolerance allowed the same reactionary coalition to regroup and to attempt a repeat in December. This time they failed, and it seems that the government has learnt its lesson and will not be surprised again.

The people, the military and their leader

In all of this there are three key actors which have been systematically underestimated by the opposition and the media: the Venezuelan people, the military, and Chávez himself. Despite the barrage of opposition propaganda the great majority of poor Venezuelans in the cerros – the hillside shanties of Caracas – and in the interior remain loyal to Chávez, and passionately so. In poor areas one has only to mention the opposition to be overwhelmed by a chorus of indignant voices denouncing the partisan hostility of the media, insisting on the corruption and injustice of the 40 years of pseudo-democracy which preceded Chávez, and defending the President’s “Bolivarian Revolution”. On Saturday 7 December, the sixth day of the lockout, a huge chavista demonstration marched from the Valle district in south-west Caracas to Miraflores to show their support for Chávez, a torrent of humanity who then stood for four hours to applaud their leader as he reaffirmed his commitment to the cause and announced the dismissal of the treacherous oil company bosses and merchant marine officers. No-one who saw this massive rally can have much doubt that if the opposition gets the early elections or referendum it wants, it will lose again as it has done seven times in the past four years. This is why the opposition is increasingly desperate – and dangerous. But it is also why the figure of Chávez himself is so crucial – something which Europeans and North Americans find hard to understand, but without which the Venezuelan process would be incomprehensible.

The idea that one man can galvanise and represent an entire people, and can do so without being a dictator or a demagogue, is anathema to most people in the West. But such heroic figures do appear from time to time – and not only in Latin America – in situations of national crisis, when the popular demand for change is overwhelming and no party or structured organisation is adequate to the task. In Venezuela by the early 90s all political parties were discredited, the economy was a shambles and the people had shown in no uncertain terms, in the IMF riots of 27-28 February 1989, their rebellious disposition. Chávez showed by his attempted military-civilian uprising of February 1992 (not just a conventional coup) that he understood and was willing to provide leadership and to pay the price of failure. When a few years later (released from gaol and amnestied) he adopted the electoral road, the poor of Venezuela knew immediately that this was their man, and no amount of liberal sermonising or marxist theorising about revolutionary parties could divert them from their path. With Chávez real change was at last possible: without Chávez Venezuela today would be like Argentina, in desperate crisis, with massive protests but no prospect of a solution.

Also fundamental to the Venezuelan revolution is the military. It is fashionable now to compare Venezuela to Chile under Allende, but there are two key differences: first, that Chávez has repeatedly won a clear majority of popular votes in elections and referenda (where Allende had only a relative plurality), and secondly, that the Venezuelan military are active participants in Chávez’ revolution and not just passive and unreliable “constitutionalists” as in Chile. Many progressive people understandably find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a Latin American military corps siding with the people, but for various reasons Venezuela is different: the recruitment of the officer corps is less elitist, many of them were trained in nationalist values and did not attend the notorious School of the Americas, and since the April coup the most reactionary officers have been purged and many others resent the idea that they were deceived and manipulated by the golpistas.

A real programme for the people

It is frequently said, even in the progressive media, that for all his promises and popularity Chávez has done nothing to improve the life of the poor in Venezuela. Nothing could be further from the truth: despite all kinds of political and legal roadblocks invented by the opposition, he has nearly tripled the education and health budgets, has introduced a special programme of Bolivarian Schools organised (but not run) by the military for poor children, public works programmes by the military in poor neighbourhoods, micro-credit for small farmers, a new Women’s Development Bank, support for new housing projects organised and run by local communities with state aid, and above all, support for ordinary people to take control of their own affairs and organise to take power at all levels through participatory democracy. It is this which the Venezuelan oligarchy cannot tolerate, and this, together with his nationalist economic and foreign policies, which is so dangerous in the eyes of Washington.

The threat of intervention

The threat of violence (and contrary to the impression given by the media, the Venezuelan process has been remarkably peaceful except for the events of 11-14 April) is real, and last week it reared its ugly head again in the Plaza Francia of Altamira, a wealthy district of east Caracas. This square has become the focus of opposition activity, occupied for weeks by right-wing protesters and dissident military officers calling incessantly for Chávez’ overthrow. On Friday 6 December shots rang out in Plaza Francia, resulting in three deaths and 28 wounded. Within a couple of hours opposition leaders, notably Carlos Fernández of the business association and Carlos Ortega of the CTV union federation, were on TV blaming the government – “¡Chávez asesino!” shouted a furious Ortega, without a shred of evidence. A Portuguese immigrant, Joâo de Gouveia, immediately confessed to the shootings, but it is not at all clear if he was responsible for all the shots and who (if anyone) put him up to it. The government lamented the casualties and called for calm while a thorough judicial investigation takes place, but it is obvious that the Altmira massacre fits right in to the opposition’s plan to destabilise the country and condemn Chávez as a violent dictator. This is an almost exact replay of the April scenario which triggered the coup, but this time it didn’t work: the people and the government would not fall for the same trick twice, and most significantly the military, conscious that they were manipulated in April, are now more solidly behind Chávez than before. Unable to provoke a coup, having failed to paralyse the economy, and knowing that they are unlikely to win a fair election, the opposition’s last gambit is destabilisation in order to justify US intervention. That is now the one real threat to Chávez and his revolution, and that is what progressive and democratic forces world-wide must denounce and oppose by every means possible. Write to your MPs, to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, organise solidarity meetings and demonstrations in support of Venezuela and its unique popular democratic revolution, write to the authorities in Washington and the OAS, and demand respect for the democratic government of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela!

David Raby
Caracas, 15 December 2002
dlraby@liv.ac.uk

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