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Back to issue 27

International Socialist Review Issue 27, January–February 2003

Venezuela: Another bosses' strike

by Bridget Broderick

ONE GETS the impression from the mainstream media in the U.S. that Venezuela has been on the precipice of economic and social chaos since day one of the national strike beginning December 2, 2002, and that populist president Hugo Chávez is on his last legs. This is no accident. The U.S. corporate press borrows its stories from the private media in Caracas, which is owned by the very opposition who spearheaded the “strike” designed to (once again) overthrow Chávez. Over the past year the private media have become the voice of Chávez’s opponents—oil executives, business and media leaders, Catholic Church officials, middle class professionals and trade union bureaucrats who formed the “Democratic Coordinator” (DC—Coordinadora Democrática) after their unsuccessful coup attempt in April of 2002.

This same minority group organized an indefinite strike—effectively a bosses’ lockout—in April. The strike itself lost steam after a few days, but the opposition, determined to force Chávez out, held rallies in the streets of Caracas. The media falsely reported that these mass rallies “forced” the president to resign, and that Chávez’s sharpshooters were responsible for the deaths of protesters. The president was arrested and held at a military base, while the coup-makers suspended the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly. But masses of Venezuela’s poor took to the streets to defend Chávez, and the coup collapsed in fewer than 48 hours.

The current strike seems to follow the same course as the April coup, and the national media present a similarly distorted view of events. Some of the events are real. Oil production has been reduced by anywhere between 30Ů70 percent since December 2, and captains of oil tankers in major shipping zones such as Lake Maracaibo and the Orinoco River did halt shipments of oil and other raw materials. On December 6, at least one gunman shot three anti-Chávez protesters and wounded 28 in the Plaza Francia in the upscale Altamira neighborhood where the opposition and dissident military officers rally. There have been protests of thousands in Caracas against Chávez, and shortages of cash, gasoline, and some staples have affected the population. Crude oil prices have risen after the second week of the strike, which continues as the ISR goes to press.

Alternate universe of the majority

Yet in an alternate universe that the national media never cover, the strike has a remarkably different character. In poor and working-class neighborhoods, most commercial businesses did not shut down, and transport throughout major cities ran smoothly. Most major industries have not joined the strike, with the exception of some transnational companies such as McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Oil executives and managers took part in the lockout from the beginning, but production and transport workers in the oil industry (which provides the Venezuelan state with 50 percent of its revenue) did not join the stoppage. The key to the strike’s “success” has been sabotage. Executives and management in the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), sabotaged key technology controlling production and transport and barred workers from entering some of the main refineries and storage facilities in El Palito and Yagua. For example, in the important Yagua plant, which provides oil to the central western part of the country, technicians worked 24 hours to repair computerized equipment after managers changed all entry codes and stole instruction manuals. Engineers were ordered to return to their home states, and management called them a week later to ensure they had left the state and had not tried to “break the strike.”

What the private mainstream media have failed to report is the significant mobilizations of thousands of workers, volunteers and Chávez supporters who have organized against the opposition’s shutdown of the economy. While it is true that PDVSA offices are paralyzed in Caracas, oil workers in Puerto La Cruz and other cities took over oil production, with the support of the National Guard. Puerto La Cruz workers took over two ships and began loading them manually because the automated system—controlled from Caracas—had been sabotaged by managers. Many PDVSA workers labor 15 hours a day to keep the industry running. Although oil tanker captains supported the strike by anchoring their ships in Lake Maracaibo—where one million barrels of crude oil are shipped daily—the crew members announced that they did not support the opposition. Chávez ordered the Navy to board the ships and protect refineries. Some ships have been released to continue transport of oil for internal and foreign markets.

Throughout the country, Venezuelans have organized to counter the opposition’s attempts at another coup. When the press accused Chávez of instigating the murders in the Plaza Francia on December 6, over 800,000 Venezuelans rallied in Caracas to support the president. Many Bolivarian Circles (government-sanctioned political action groups), workplace and community groups have mobilized informational pickets at oil industry gates and volunteered to work in the oil industry to overcome the opposition. Facing gasoline shortages, many workers have moved to take matters into their hands—as when the workers of Guayana moved to take over closed gas stations, many of them owned by foreign companies such as Shell and BP Amoco.

On December 9, when private television channels spread rumors that the military and DC opponents were plotting another coup, thousands of outraged Caracas residents organized to surround media centers. Globovisión and other channels reported the protests, which encouraged Venezuelans in other major cities such as Maracay to organize against the media’s blatantly biased role in coup attempts. Groups of pot-banging protesters have maintained vigils around media centers to demand an equal voice in the media’s portrayal of national events, but the opposition denounces the “lumpen” (as the media has called Chávez supporters) for their “violence.” Groups in workplaces and communities have organized to confront other instances of sabotage and slowdowns by the opposition, and recently there have been clashes in the streets between pro- and anti-Chávez protesters.

Another coup?

No wonder the Venezuelan and U.S. press prefer not to portray this “alternate reality.” Clearly the DC has not won the majority of Venezuelans to support their call for a national strike, let alone a different government. Most Venezuelans see the DC as “golpista” (coup instigators) members of the traditional elite that allowed transnational corporations to plunder the country’s wealth at the expense of the poor for years. Opposition leaders are evidently willing to use their influence and wealth to sabotage Venezuela’s stability in order to see Chávez step down.

In the months following the first coup attempt, the opposition tried various protests and maneuvers with limited success. They made small gains—the Supreme Court ruled that a coup never took place, so military officers were not indicted in the violence, and in October “dissident” military officials joined the opposition in refusing to recognize Chávez’s authority. The latest maneuver in October was a petition drive to demand a non-binding referendum in February 2003 on Chávez’s rule (just six months prior to the constitutional referendum allowed in August 2003). Both sides agreed to negotiations mediated by Organization of American States (OAS) leader C»sar Gaviria, a former president of Colombia. In the middle of negotiations, the opposition called its fourth bosses’ lockout of the year to demand the referendum in February. When Chávez agreed to this possibility, the DC claimed that early elections and Chávez’s resignation were the only real solution to the nation’s problems. Later the Supreme Court justices joined the lockout, refusing to try or jail any opposition saboteurs.

Gaviria—negotiator for Bush

Gaviria is strongly supported by the Bush administration in negotiations for a “democratic solution” to Venezuela’s crisis. This time around Bush appears to prefer a more diplomatic approach to backing the opposition’s attempts to overthrow Chávez. In the months before the April coup, Washington leaders held numerous meetings with coup leaders. Hours after the military took over, Bush defended the coup as a victory for democracy. This attitude provoked outrage from other Latin American leaders, who denounced the regime change for what it was—a coup. Now that other popular left-leaning presidents have been democratically elected in Brazil and Ecuador, Bush prefers to use the OAS leader as a figurehead for democracy.

Yet Gaviria is hardly a neutral peacemaker. As president of Colombia in 1990-94, he promoted the formation of bloody paramilitaries and sold off national interests to foreign companies. Washington later backed Gaviria as secretary-general of the OAS in order to pave the way for Plan Colombia and military intervention in that country.

During the current negotiations, Gaviria has shown his true side. On December 9, when protesters surrounded commercial media centers around the country, Gaviria issued a press release denouncing the popular assemblies as “acts of intimidation against the installations of some of the principal media of the country such as Radio Caracas Television, the De Armas Group, Venevisión and Globovisión.” Gaviria called on Chávez to “take serious action to cease such threats” to ensure “freedom of the press.” Gaviria had never issued such statements when the opposition held daily protests at the government-owned media station.

Apparently the Bush administration decided that OAS negotiations were not producing the appropriate results. On December 12, the White House issued a statement calling on Chávez to hold early elections. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon was sent to Caracas for meetings with government and opposition leaders in search of what President Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, called “a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and politically viable electoral solution.” When U.S. reporters pointed out that early elections conflicted with the Venezuelan constitution, Fleischer responded, “I do not believe that—the statement would have been crafted by experts who are versed in this field. This was a statement by the staff expressed through me representing the president’s opinions, if it was not constitutional. So I think we have a difference about the Venezuelan constitution.”

Chávez, who was elected with an overwhelming majority in two elections in the past four years, suggested that he could send a copy of the Venezuelan constitution to the U.S. president for review, but Venezuelan elections would not be scheduled by the Bush administration or the opposition. On December 16, the White House backed away from support for early elections, clarifying that it really meant to support “the will of the people to be heard through the provisions of the Constitution, in the manner that the Venezuelan people deem most appropriate.” Yet clearly the Bush administration would prefer a more compliant, less independent leader in the Caribbean nation that provides the U.S. with 14 percent of its crude oil.

Chávez vacillates

True to Chávez’s populist politics, he has vacillated between antagonizing the opposition and appeasing them. In the past, Chávez has used radical rhetoric against the “putrid oligarchy” and “savage neoliberalism,” but in practice he has made significant concessions to international capital (paying the IMF debt, for example) and national capitalist opposition. Since April, he has called for reconciliation with the coup leaders, not prison for their violent role in the coup. He has allowed the commercial press to continue advertising the DC’s call for regime change. He changed the heads of PDVSA and the ministry of the economy to comply with demands of the coup leaders. And he increased taxes on regular staple goods and services instead of increasing capital taxes.

At the same time, however, Chávez has also sought to strengthen his base of support. He organized a national meeting of popular assemblies, and pushed for the formation of thousands more Bolivarian Circles throughout the country. He has met with popular media circles to encourage non-commercial media to counter the mainstream media. Most importantly, he has acknowledged the important role of rank-and-file union workers, and has pushed for them to organize under the government’s control. In September and October, he took up the call for workers to take over industries or businesses that Venezuelan capitalists might try to shut down. However, during the December strike he has not repeated this call as oil workers and community members actually have taken over some workplaces. Instead, he has relied on the armed forces to ensure the reestablishment of production.

Chávez has made cautious appeals for the masses’ support. When he needs mass mobilizations in the streets to defy the opposition, he successfully draws hundreds of thousands of supporters to Chavista rallies in Caracas. But he is careful to control the responses. At each march, the numbers of Venezuelans attending marches against the coup leaders has increased (250,000 in October; 800,000 in December). However, active organizing beyond the marches is limited to acknowledgement of popular groups, not a development of strategies to organize against the opposition. Chávez and his political party, the Movimiento Quinta Repôblica (MVR), are unwilling to encourage mass organizing that make independent demands because it could threaten their own political power. Militant oil workers from the Movimiento Clasista La Jornada (roughly translated as workers’ movement or tendency), active in Puerto La Cruz, observed:

The government has reacted [to the strike] by removing some of the worst saboteurs÷. But its fear of an explosion of violence÷as well as fear of radicalization of the revolution (which directly attacks the economic structure), leads [Chávez] to try a conciliatory solution that consists of demobilizing the masses and channeling them toward a bourgeois, electoral solution [Emphasis added]÷. The radical wing of the National Assembly appeals to the masses, but as “the masses,” not as thinking beings; they require the masses’ presence, but not [our] essence. The conciliatory wing extends a branch to the opposition to find an electoral solution, under the condition that the strike be lifted/ended.

During the latest negotiations, Chávez first ordered the National Guard to take over the Caracas police controlled by opposition mayor Alfredo Peña. After several days of the current lockout, the president agreed to return power over the police to anti-Chávez forces. When the December 2 lockout began, Chávez refused to resume negotiations until the strike ended. Yet a week later, as the strike continued, he returned to the negotiating table. Chávez agreed to some form of non-binding referendum in February, and the National Assembly began work to amend the Constitution.

Yet with each concession Chávez has made, the DC has demanded more—elections in February and Chávez’s resignation. Encouraged by U.S. support for early elections, hundreds of thousands of oppositionists reportedly rallied on December 14 to demand Chávez’s ouster. In interviews the following day, the president discussed the possibility of stepping down if the country became “ungovernable.” The problem, as La Jornada points out, is that “the opposition knows that the doubts, indecision and conciliatory position of the president favors [the DC]. That’s why it redoubles its strike efforts while it sits at the negotiating table.”

Not at the negotiating table

The only side of the conflict that is not at the U.S.-sponsored negotiating table are those responsible for maintaining true democracy in the country: the majority of workers, unemployed, campesinos and students who organized to defeat the coup in April. Their actions during the current lockout represent a much deeper political radicalization since the April events. Many recognize that despite Chávez’s moderate reforms in education, land and health care, the needs of Venezuela’s poor and unemployed have gone unmet.

As the opposition sabotages the national economy, working and poor Venezuelans have risen to the challenge of making society run without the direction of management and government. This is a tremendous development in independent organizing—a new step in what many Venezuelans call “the process of revolution.” New groups organized in Bolivarian Circles, the union caucus Revolutionary Left Option (Opción de Izquierda Revolucionaria, OIR) and other political formations have met with sectors of the armed forces to make political demands on Chávez—governmental takeover of PDVSA, jail for the coup leaders, popular control of opposition-run media and mass demonstrations to counter any threats of a new coup. Venezuelan oil workers have called for international solidarity to help in oil transportation. The Colombian oil workers union (USO) has responded by offering Chávez assistance against the opposition’s sabotage.

Many groups acting locally to defend their interests acknowledge the need for a more nationally coordinated strategy of defense and a plan to determine the next steps for real social alternatives. A call made by La Jornada expresses this need:

This moment is key for coordinating the organization of offensive actions that can keep the population mobilized and constructing a popular alternative power.

[We call for] a National Assembly of revolutionary organizations to discuss national solutions; control of energy supplies, industrial and mass transport, and food supplies;

The government must arm and train the people to defend the revolutionary process, forming popular militias accountable to popular organizations.

No electoral solutions—this will take people backwards after mobilizations have deepened political consciousness. We cannot have confidence in any state apparatus [such as the National Electoral Council] or mass media who are responsible for electoral campaigns.

[We call for] workers’ control of production and dissemination of the mass media.

Having been burned in the last coup attempt, the military seems less willing to throw its weight behind the current strike. On December 15, for example, army chief General Julio GarcŐa Montoya called on citizens to distrust the opposition’s “irrational and brutal action against the country.” Experience shows that ordinary Venezuelans cannot count on the military, though.

Further conciliation by Chávez, combined with more right-wing destabilization campaigns, can create the conditions for a new election, or even another coup attempt. But the biggest problem for the opposition, outside of the mass mobilizations that have met their golpista activities and the lackluster support from the military, is that they have no viable candidate to field against Chávez.

Whatever the future holds—and as we go to press the “strike” is still on—ordinary Venezuelans are going to have to develop organizations and means of struggle that can act independently of Chávez’s vacillations and compromise, in order to forestall another coup (military or electoral) and defend their right to a truly democratic society.

Bridget Broderick recently returned
from a visit to Venezuela and is
a frequent contributor to the ISR on
Latin American issues.