Three months ago the Chávez government in Venezuela was under siege by a jubilant opposition which thought it had the whip hand: with big business shut down by a bosses’ lockout, banks closed, massive anti-Chávez demonstrations and cacerolazos (pot-banging protests) every day, overwhelming media hostility and above all, the vital oil industry paralysed, it looked as if the government’s days were numbered. The opposition demanded a referendum to be held in early February to revoke the President’s mandate, and/or intervention under the OAS (Organisation of American States) Democratic Charter; and with support from the US, Spain, Colombia and other countries, they had reason to be optimistic – or so it seemed.
Today the situation has changed dramatically: the paro (business lockout) collapsed early in February, oil production is recovering, the Supreme Court has declared the referendum constitutionally invalid at this time, progressive Latin American governments have refused to go along with interventionist manoeuvres, and Chávez has taken decisive measures to restore his regime’s authority and support. And in the context of the Anglo-American war for oil and hegemony in Iraq, revolutionary Venezuela stands out as a bastion of resistance in Latin America.
The opposition seriously overplayed its hand: short-sighted and arrogant, they demanded Chávez’ resignation or overthrow and refused to negotiate. The Constitution provides for a mid-term presidential referendum in August this year, but they wanted it immediately and on their terms. In mid-December when it became clear that the business strike had only limited success, they used their banking and oil industry connections to provoke paralysis of the national economy, with an attitude which could only be described as sabotage. For most Venezuelans this was irresponsible and unpatriotic, and the government’s decision to send in the military to control the oil installations met with widespread approval.
Worst of all for many people was the opposition’s abuse of its virtual monopoly of media power and its military contacts to call openly for revolt against the constitutionally-elected government, in a blatant repetition of the strategy that led to last April’s short-lived military coup. The opposition calls itself the Coordinadora Democrática, but its actions betray the authoritarian and reactionary sympathies of its leaders, several of whom were directly involved in the Pinochet-style repression of the 48-hour dictator Pedro Carmona last year. For democratic Venezuelans this opposition has no credibility whatsoever.
Chávez takes firm action
Faced with this strategy of subversion and sabotage, Chávez reacted with firm measures that many people thought he should have taken last April: purging PDVSA (the state oil company) of its sell-out management, ordering the arrest of opposition leaders who had publicly advocated rebellion, threatening to revoke the licences of TV stations which devoted most of their programming to subversive propaganda, and imposing exchange controls to limit capital flight. During the paro, when food wholesalers and supermarket owners tried to provoke artificial shortages, the military were used to buy food direct from small farmers and cooperatives and sell it in the cities at favourable prices in open-air “megamarkets” which proved very popular, and these have continued since the end of the paro. Price controls have been imposed on basic commodities and members of the Bolivarian Circles and other grass-roots organisations are invited to denounce violations.
New legislative measures and programmes show that these are not just emergency measures but part of a broad counter-offensive in which the government and the popular movement have recovered the initiative. A new Law of Media Responsibility will limit the ability of newspapers or TV and radio stations to use their influence for subversive purposes. A programme supported by the military and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation will promote intensive urban allotments in poor neighbourhoods to prevent food shortages and speculation. In response to rural landlords who have been sabotaging the agrarian reform by assassinating peasant activists, Chávez announced the formation of a new Rural Security Guard trained and equipped by the military.
The people organise
Popular organisation in support of the revolutionary process is also proceeding apace. As the old corrupt union federation, the CTV (Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos), has become completely discredited by its blatant support for the April coup and the recent opposition paro, alternative chavista unions are gaining ground steadily. The FBT (Fuerza Bolivariana de Trabajadores or Bolivarian Workers’ Force), created in September 2000 by chavista union activists, recently got together with other independent unions to form a new labour confederation called UNETE which is to be launched officially on 29 March. “A long time ago the CTV turned into an organisation serving the bosses and anti-national interests”, said Eduardo Piñate, an FBT leader I spoke to in December. “The CTV isn’t a union organisation any more, it’s a corrupt mafia”. This may be a slight exaggeration – there are sectors of privileged workers in oil and other key industries who still support the CTV – but there is no doubt about the deep-rooted corruption at the heart of the old Confederation, and the leading role of its boss Carlos Ortega both in the April coup and in the recent paro has demonstrated its total abandonment of any attempt to defend workers’ rights. During the paro Ortega repeatedly called on television for Chávez’ overthrow or even assassination, and when a judge recently served an order for his arrest he sought asylum in the Costa Rican embassy.
Other forms of popular organisation also received a fresh impulse in reaction to the paro. The Bolivarian Circles continue to grow, and neighbourhood associations of all kinds got together to discuss how to coordinate action to overcome shortages or to combat any new coup attempt. Agricultural and commercial cooperatives are being promoted and are working together to distribute produce as much as 50% cheaper than normal supermarket prices; cooperatives in Caracas and Lara state recently announced an agreement to this effect and similar arrangements are being negotiated in other states.
New opposition conspiracies
Thrown on the defensive, the opposition is once again falling back on its old strategy of military conspiracy. Its trump card is the knowledge that the Bush administration would like to get rid of Chávez and his revolution, although in public – having got its fingers burnt last April – Washington proclaims its respect for democratic and constitutional methods. On March 14th intelligence sources reported a plot in Zulia state, the old oil-producing region around the port of Maracaibo near the Colombian border. Zulia’s Governor, Manuel Rosales, is a supporter of the old governing party Acción Democrática (AD), and many of the state’s municipalities have opposition mayors. They were said to be conspiring with the commanders of four Zulia military units to destabilise the region and then seize or assassinate Chávez during a visit to the state. Rosales is said to be working with former Venezuelan president and AD boss Carlos Andrés Pérez, impeached for corruption in 1993 and currently living between Florida and the Dominican Republic. Zulia separatism is a historic problem which the opposition tries to exploit, but Chávez also has supporters in the state and the early detection of this plot suggests that they are well organised.
In his weekly TV programme “Aló Presidente” on March 16th Chávez declared that he knew some generals were conspiring again, but “I have a surprise for them”and they would be neutralised. He added that Venezuelans would have a new government on 10 January 2007 as laid down in the Constitution, “and I don’t know who will be the President, but it will be a revolutionary”. Contrary to widespread expectations Chávez has already lasted four years, and he may well surprise most observers by lasting another four. His “Bolivarian revolution” is bringing more and more material benefits to poor Venezuelans in the form of education, health care, housing, land ownership and cheap food, and most important, popular power and participation. It has also brought a sense of national dignity and independence which appeals to Venezuelans of all social classes and to anti-imperialist sentiment throughout Latin America.