The general strike organized by opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, now entering its eighth week, has been crumbling. Although the South American nation’s economy has lost hundreds of millions of dollars due primarily to a work stoppage which paralyzed the state oil industry, backing for the strike and its leaders has withered.
In a recent show of support for the embattled populist president, hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Venezuelans took to the streets to demonstrate their backing for the constitution and Chavez, who has been twice democratically elected. But increasing class and racial polarization in Venezuelan society continues to breed tension that often erupts in violence. Recent efforts by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and the Organization of American States to broker a deal between Chavez and his opponents have thus far failed to produce results.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Steve Ellner, professor of history at the Universidad de Oriente in Caracas, who takes a look at the sputtering general strike and the political resilience of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Steve Ellner: The strike began on Dec. 2 and a week or so after the strike began there was a shutdown of the oil industry. Venezuelan oil production reached a very small percentage of its normal output and gradually the government succeeded in operating the industry. The strike apparently was a strike of the upper echelons of the industry and the Chavez government hired people who had experience in industry, brought in people from other countries and slowly the production has recovered. At this point, the strike effort is really petering out and probably the strike will be called off by the opposition within a week or so.
Between The Lines: It’s quite certain that the general strike against Hugo Chavez has had a dramatic effect on the Venezuelan economy. But what is the effect on popular opinion of Hugo Chavez and those who want to bring down his presidency?
Steve Ellner: From what I’ve read, and surveys that have been referred to, Chavez has actually benefited, politically speaking. And I say that because the strike has failed and many people who were either in the anti-Chavez camp or people who were in an in-between position, and I think about 40 percent — this is what I estimate, about 40 percent of the population — is critical of Chavez, but even more critical of the opposition. And those people, a certain percentage of those people are now moving over to a less critical position on Chavez. The fact that Chavez was able to weather this situation and the fact that the opposition promised their people that Chavez would be out by Christmas — they emphasized that when the strike began on Dec. 2 — has discredited the opposition to a certain extent. It’s also radicalized the opposition; it’s radicalized people in the Chavez camp. On Thursday of last week (Jan. 23), Chavez called an immense demonstration. It’s anybody’s guess as to how many, in the hundreds of thousands. And just watching the images on the screen, it’s evident that both the opposition has great mobilization capacity and Chavez does also.
Between The Lines: Former President Carter was recently in Venezuela to attempt to negotiate an agreement of some kind. The Organization of American States (OAS) has similarly tried to broker a deal. Is there anything in the air that they’ve been able to hammer something with substance out between the two sides?
Steve Ellner: One of the things that President Carter called for — on one hand he accepted as one option — Chavez’s position which is elections or a recall referendum in August, because Chavez states that this is what the constitution allows for. Chavez has been unwilling to accept elections before that date, because he says that there’s nothing in the constitution that allows for that. And basically what President Carter has called for is an agreement in which Chavez agrees to accepting a recall referendum in August and also rehiring all the oil people who went on strike. And his first proposition was basically accepted by Chavez. Chavez says he’d be willing to participate in this recall referendum in August, but he is unwilling to rehire, at least, the executives who planned, who engineered the oil strike. So there still is a considerable distance between (OAS Secretary General CÃ©sar) Gaviria and Carter on the one hand and Chavez and the opposition on the other.
Between The Lines: If indeed a referendum on Chavez’s rule is held in August, per the constitution of Venezuela, is Chavez likely to survive that ballot?
Steve Ellner : You know, according to the polls Chavez still is the most popular politician. The polls indicate that Chavez has between 30 and 35 percent, and this figure is actually from before the strike. Chavez has actually gained support. According to one survey that I saw that was published in the newspaper, it’s a weekly newspaper that’s called Quinto Dia, (http://www.quintodia.com.ve )l his support is up to about 50 percent. I mean that’s just one survey that was quoted in the press and it’s not a pro-Chavez newspaper.
But in any case, the surveys that were conducted before the strike placed Chavez at between 30 and 35 percent and the leading politicians of the opposition somewhere a little over 20 percent, and then the second leading candidate of the opposition less than that.
You know, it really depends on whether the opposition can unite and even more than that the opposition has, I think in my mind, been discredited because it hasn’t presented a program to the country. Its only demand is the ousting of Chavez. I think that really the results of those elections in August will depend on the opposition’s candidate, the unity of the opposition and its program.
Steve Ellner is the co-editor of “Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era, Class Polarization and Conflict,” by Lynne Reinner Publishers.
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, nationally syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (www.btlonline.org ), for the week ending Feb. 7, 2003. AOL users: Click here!
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