The Guardian January 22, 2003


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)

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