Chavez Is On The Offensive

It is one of life’s little ironies that the impending reopening of that symbol of American capitalism, McDonalds Hamburgers, which is still on “strike” against the Venezuelan government, will be hailed as a victory for President Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. But perhaps we should not be too surprised.

This is, after all, the country where everything seems the wrong way round and language is being continually reinvented. In Venezuela, the word “democracy” has come to mean the overthrow of the elected President. Bosses organise the strikes and corrupt union leaders complain about the government defending workers’ legal rights. And the military, armed with cement mixers and bricks, invade the shanty towns to build houses, not to destroy them.

In the midst of this struggle for the future of Venezuela, is an increasingly confident Hugo Chavez, who, having seen off a US backed coup attempt last April, is now busy banging the last nails into the coffin of a collapsing two month old strike of managers in the state owned oil company, the PDVSA. The strike is a showdown between the right wing opposition and the government over the control of the country’s vast oil reserves, which provide Venezuela with two thirds of its export earnings.

Wresting control of the PDVSA from the old pro-American management, who had run it as a personal fiefdom and favoured privatisation, is seen as pivotal to Chavez’s ability to deliver on his promises of homes, health and education for the poor. Just as the failure of April’s coup allowed Chavez to purge the military of right wing Generals, the slow defeat of the strike in the PDVSA, has provided Chavez with the opportunity to dismiss 5,000 anti-government executives and saboteurs, and press ahead with the long overdue reform of the company.

Thus far, the Venezuelan opposition’s tactics bear a remarkable and uncanny similarity to those which successfully overthrew Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in 1973 and which led to Michael Manley’s defeat at the ballot box in Jamaica in 1980.

In each case, there was a sustained and organised attack on the legitimacy of the government led by the big business owned media monopoly. Each of the country’s leaders was subjected to a campaign of character assassination, and labelled a tyrant, a liar and an incompetent. The government was declared “undemocratic” and “communist” and lies and misrepresentations abounded. In turn, this created an atmosphere in which political violence would be seen as aimed not at the destruction of democracy, but at its preservation. Economic destabilisation then followed which included the flight of capital abroad.

In all three cases, the government was accused of taking orders from Fidel Castro and of hiding thousands of Cuban troops in the country. Each leader was also accused of arming terrorists. In Allende’s case, it was communist guerrillas. In Manley’s case, the PLO. And in Chavez’s case, FARC and al Qaeda.

In Chile, the coup was preceded by an employers’ strike. In Jamaica, Manley’s election defeat was preceded by an employers’ strike. In Venezuela, last April’s coup was preceded by an employers’ strike.

At the time the United States issued categorical denials that the CIA was behind the destabilisation and coups, or had ever financed and advised government opponents. They later admitted their intimate involvement in the Chilean coup, but only after the mountain of evidence became so overwhelming it couldn’t be credibly denied.

Chavez has learnt the lessons of Chile and Jamaica. Firstly, he has secured his base in the military, making another coup attempt a near impossibility. Secondly, he has set up over one hundred and thirty thousand grass roots neighbourhood organisations in the slums, called Bolivarian Circles. These are self help groups of between 7 and 13 persons, which represent and organise the local population and act as a communication channel between the populace and the government. The opposition claim that they are heavily armed. Thirdly, providing the government defeats the oil executives strike, he will have access to a steady and reliable source of hard currency revenue with which he can continue to finance the social programmes for the working class and poor.

The opposition’s media monopoly, which includes three of the four TV stations and all the national papers, remains Chavez’s biggest obstacle and the opposition’s greatest strength. Recently legal documents were served on the private TV stations, threatening them with closure if they continued to undermine the constitutional legitimacy of the government and participate in attempts to overthrow it.

The opposition, having played the cards of military coup and economic destabilisation are looking increasingly boxed in. The United States, currently pre-occupied with the Middle East and still smarting from the embarrassment of having recognised last April’s short lived coup, has been forced to declare that it wouldn’t recognise another dictatorship or directly intervene. Provided that that remains the US position, the opposition is left with elections as the only viable means of unseating Chavez.

Under the Constitution, a binding referendum on Chavez’s presidency may be held in August, which is the mid point of his six year term. However, in order to trigger a vote, the opposition must first collect the verified signatures of at least 20% of registered electors. To unseat the President, the opposition must not only win the referendum, but also attract a larger number of actual votes than Chavez received when he was elected in 2000 with 56% support. The opposition is not confident they can reach this target, hence their strategy to force out the President by alternative means.

Their problems are further compounded by internal division and lack of a clear position. Some leaders are calling for an end to the crumbling business strike, others are calling for it to be strengthened. A group of disgraced former army generals are demanding the assassination of the President, whilst more moderate voices are calling for negotiations.

In public, the opposition is trying to put on a brave face. They point to opinion polls which allegedly show a majority against the government. But opinion polls, even legitimate ones – which the Venezuelan versions are not – often understate the support for an incumbent President because voters are more inclined to express their dissatisfaction when the choice is abstract. When voters have to make a real choice and consider the alternatives, they are often more circumspect. Opinion polls, particularly those conducted by partisan pollsters, don’t reflect the fact that interviewees will frequently hide their true opinions, particularly when they feel that their viewpoint is controversial or not what they think the person asking the question wants to hear.

Neither is public opinion static. It reflects, at any given moment, a whole range of factors. One of these factors is ‘momentum’, which is something the government now has in droves and which the opposition has squandered by virtue of the failure of their business strike.

The battle for public opinion appears to be moving steadily in the government’s favour. In January, up to a million mainly indigenous and darker skinned Venezuelans from the city slums and the countryside, marched through the capital, Caracas, in a huge show of support for the government. The opposition’s counter demonstration, held a few days later, attracted only about seventy thousand mostly white middle class people. This was significantly down on previous figures for opposition marches.

Senior opposition leaders are now admitting that they are facing a backlash from ordinary workers, particularly from those who have lost their jobs as a result of bankruptcies brought about by the business strike. At the gas stations, irate motorists queuing for scarce petrol are no longer heard blaming the government for the shortages. And in some parts of the country, car stickers are appearing, saying “Opposition supporter turned Chavista”.

Calvin Tucker writes on British and international issues for the British monthly “Straight Left”. In November 2001 Tucker correctly predicted a coup attempt after becoming convinced that the United States of America was preparing for a coup against Venezuela’s elected President, Hugo Chavez Frias

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