Venezuelan masses back Chavez
The strike by the opponents of the government of Hugo Chavez is the longest in Venezuela's history. The oil industry strike, orchestrated by right-wing union officials and backed by reactionary business interests, has hit Venezuela's economy hard. The opposition's aim is to sabotage the economy and force the popularly elected President to either resign or call for a binding referendum on his rule. The US administration has backed the push to oust Chavez, having been in on the coup last April which saw him briefly replaced by a member of Venezuela' s business elite, who in turn was tipped out by the mass actions of government supporters and support from the main pro-government section of the military. The US is now calling for new elections in Venezuela. Toward the end of last December Chavez responded to this interference in the country's affairs by sending a copy of the Venezuelan constitution to the White House, highlighting that elections are not due for another four years. The military has signalled its support for the government if it were forced to take steps, including the imposition of a state of emergency, to rescue the country from the current impasse. The elite in Venezuela initially tolerated Chavez in the hope that he could be co-opted. But Chavez was determined to adopt his agenda of social and economic reform. He has made it clear he intends to use Venezuela's huge oil wealth for the benefit of the downtrodden, who constitute the vast majority of the population. Chavez said that his country faces "a colossal challenge that pits the past — hatred desperation and death — against the future — love, hope and life." In pursuit of this vision, the Government has nationalised huge tracts of land and given it to landless peasants and introduced much needed industrial and labour law reforms, the latter angering the entrenched conservative trade union leadership. It was the passing of the rural land reform law in November 2001 which signalled the start of the opposition protests. And it was Chavez's attempt to restructure the state oil company — Petroleos de Venezuela — and make it answerable to the state and the people, that set in motion the April coup attempt. The Chavez Government infuriated the Bush administration by openly questioning the rationale behind the US's global "anti-terror" strategy and by its support for socialist Cuba. The man in charge of the US State Department's Latin American Desk, Otto Reich, is a former CIA operative who was deeply involved in the Iran-Contra scandal in which drug money was laundered to arm forces trying to undermine the Nicaraguan Government in the 1980s. He is very close to the exiled Cuban Mafia in Miami. As ambassador to Venezuela in the '80s, Cuban born Reich established a CIA network in the top echelons of the Venezuelan army and bureaucracy. This stood the US in good stead as they set about destabilising the Chavez Government. The key civilian conspirators in the coup attempt regularly met with the current American ambassador in the capital Caracas, Charles Shapiro, a former head of the US State Department's Cuba Desk. The country's Supreme Court — like other important state organs is still packed with supporters of previous governments — in a scandalous majority judgement, set the main coup plotters free. After that, forces led by the union federation CTV, the Chamber of Commerce and the two former establishment parties (which had cosily alternated in government) began organising a series of strikes. Oil company officials openly support the strike, and the takeover of state oil tankers, which Chavez described as "an act of piracy". The Government gets US$9 billion revenue a year from Petroleos de Venezuela and provides 15 percent of the oil exported to the US. The Venezuelan middle class, sections of which had previously backed Chavez, has been adversely affected by the county's economic troubles. The devaluation of the currency by 50 percent and skyrocketing inflation have hit the middle class more than any other social strata. Unemployment jumped from 12 percent in 2001 to 35 percent in 2002, an economic downturn due mainly to the international fall in the price of oil. The state budget had to be reduced by seven percent. The April coup added to the problems, hastening the flight of capital out of the country. Nonetheless, the poor have benefited a lot in the four years since the election of the Chavez Government. For the first time they have access to free medical care and education. The state-run schools provide three full meals a day, an added incentive for the children of the poor to attend school. In a national address in December, Chavez warned that the opposition was moving toward another coup and that a plan was in process to defeat the constitutional government. He told supporters who had packed the city centre that his opponents "continue to play the coup card, they continue to play the fascist card, they continue to play the destabilisation card". The supporters of the Government, the poor, dispossessed, unemployed — half of Venezuela's 23 million people live in poverty — have shown they will not abandon the revolution Chavez has started.
* * *Acknowledgements: People's Democracy, paper of the Communist Party of India (M)