Venezuela on the Brink
As the general strike against President Hugo Chávez entered its third week in early December, a major TV channel broadcast statements by baseball hero Andres Galarraga and other celebrities calling on Venezuelans to put aside differences for the sake of peace. What was significant about the TV spots was that the channel, along with the rest of the Venezuelan media, has played a key role in promoting the strike as well as marches and acts of civil disobedience sponsored by the opposition. Galarraga's plea--made beside a statue of the Virgin Mary--reflects the conviction among the nation's 50 percent who are neither pro-government nor pro-opposition that Venezuela is on the brink of civil war.
Chávez counts on active support among popular sectors, specifically those lacking steady employment and labor benefits of any kind, who make up more than half the work force. He also counts on a more loyal armed forces than this past April, when a group of officers removed him from office for forty-eight hours. On the other hand, his radical rhetoric favoring the poor over the "privileged" has alienated the middle class, despite his recent efforts to create his own movement called "the positive middle class." The middle- and upper-class eastern part of Caracas has solidly supported the strike and its mobilizations.
While the success of the strike call has been at best mixed in commerce, public education, public transportation and the steel and aluminum industries, a large majority of administrative employees and executives of the all-important state petroleum company PDVSA (the fourth-largest US oil supplier and owner of Citgo) responded positively, as did many in charge of fuel transportation. When delays in gasoline distribution produced three-hour lines at the pumps on December 18, the government decreed that private trucks carrying fuel and food could be taken over and run for the duration of the conflict. Carlos Fernández, president of the main business organization Fedecámaras, called the measure a "violation of property rights." A point of honor of the pro-Chávez movement is 100 percent state ownership of PDVSA, incorporated into the nation's new Constitution in 1999.
The opposition's militancy dates back not to 1998, when Chávez was elected president, but to 2001, when he radicalized his government by prioritizing economic and social reform. In November of that year he passed agrarian reform and legislation prohibiting private control of joint ventures for oil exploitation. Fedecámaras reacted by calling a one-day general strike. The business organization was joined by the main labor federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), whose leadership Chávez refused to recognize on the grounds that it had held fraudulent internal elections. Since then the CTV and Fedecámaras have called three more general strikes, including the one in April that led to the abortive military coup.
One unique feature of the general strike that began on December 2 is the absence of any demand other than the removal of President Chávez, either by resignation or immediate elections. All rhetoric is reduced to one simple message: Chávez must go. Recently, CTV president Carlos Ortega began calling Chávez "the dictator." Every evening Ortega and Fernández sit next to each other and read a statement summing up the day's strike activity, which is broadcast live on the nation's four major TV channels. This prolonged cozy relationship between labor and management, in which all demands are subordinated to the government's ouster, is also a rarity for Latin America, if not the world.
Chávez has offered to hold a recall election in August, in accordance with the 1999 Constitution. But opposition leaders are unwilling to wait, claiming that by August, Chávez will have further consolidated his control of the armed forces by favoring his military loyalists with promotions. According to government supporters, the real reason is that the opposition wants Chávez out by January 1, the date of Lula's presidential inauguration in Brazil, which, along with the recent election of leftist Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, fortifies Chávez's position. Both Lula and Chávez place antineoliberalism at the top of their agenda rather than promoting such radical visions as socialism, an approach now shared by many leftists throughout the continent. The two favor a government that plays a strong role in the economy in favor of economic development and social justice rather than bowing out to the private sector.
These explanations are just part of the story. A more decisive factor is the built-in vulnerability of the opposition. A political opposition based exclusively on attacking the head of state without presenting demands, proposals or alternatives tends to lose steam over time. The political parties of the opposition were discredited by the rampant corruption and economic contraction of the twenty years before Chávez's election. Now the media, Fedecámaras and the CTV have displaced them as key actors, a role that is unnatural and discredits them as time goes on. The CTV's alliance with the business sector is widely criticized even by those opposed to Chávez.
The US and Spanish governments were practically alone in welcoming the April coup against Chávez. While Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar continues to support the Venezuelan opposition in its call for immediate elections, Washington has in recent months maintained an officially neutral position, despite the National Endowment for Democracy's generous funding of opposition groups over the past several years. Thus the United States now defers to the Organization of American States, whose secretary general, César Gaviria, has brought both sides to the table in an attempt to work out a solution to the impasse. Only by Washington's adherence to this position, and its avoidance of its earlier, misguided endorsement of antidemocratic forces, can Gaviria's commendable efforts be given a chance.