Pilin Leon, a former Miss Venezuela, was busy judging the Miss World competition in London on Saturday when the oil tanker that bears her name, illegally at anchor in Lake Maracaibo (principal source of Venezuela’s oil), was boarded by Venezuelan marines. The end of history was supposed to mean an end to class struggle, but the current political conflict in Venezuela suggests it is alive and well.
When the captain of the Pilin Leon first dropped anchor, he was expressing his solidarity with the anti-government strike in Caracas. But the tanker’s crew were opposed the strike and their captain’s piratical action. When the marines boarded, on the orders of the embattled president Hugo Chavez, only the captain needed to be replaced.
For the past year or more, Venezuela’s upper and middle classes, opposed to Chavez’s government, have protested in the wealthy new neighbourhoods of Caracas, while the poor (the vast majority of the city’s population) have come from their shantytowns and demonstrated to defend “their” president.
Chavez celebrated his overwhelming electoral victory of four years ago at the weekend, at the end of a week-long insurrectionary strike designed to force him to resign, and so far he has displayed a Houdini-like capacity to escape from tight situations. In April, a similar scenario led to a brief coup d’etat, from which he was rescued by an alliance between the poor and the armed forces, and this time, the president says, he will not allow himself to be surprised.
The opposition has been hoping to repeat in December what it failed to achieve in April, but the situation is no longer the same. The armed forces are now more solidly behind the president than before. The most conservative generals no longer hold important commands; those involved in the April coup attempt have all been sent into retirement.
The international situation is different, too. The US welcomed the April coup, but this time, with more important problems elsewhere, Washington is being more circumspect. It has publicly thrown its weight behind the negotiations being conducted by Cesar Gaviria, the Colombian ex-president who leads the Organisation of American States.
Perhaps even more significant than the changing attitude of the military and of the US is the fact that the poor are more mobilised now, to such an extent that there is talk of a possible civil war. Until the April coup, the poor had voted for Chavez repeatedly, but his revolutionary programme was directed from above, without much popular participation. After the coup, which revealed that the opposition sought to impose a regime on Pinochet lines, the people realised that they had a government that they needed to defend. The opposition’s protest marches have now conjured up a phenomenon that most of the middle and upper classes might have preferred to have left sleeping – the spectre of a class and race war.
Opposition spokesmen complain that Chavez is a leftist who is leading the country to economic chaos, but underlying the fierce hatred is the terror of the country’s white elite when faced with the mobilised mass of the population, who are black, Indian and mestizo. Only a racism that dates back five centuries – of the European settlers towards their African slaves and the country’s indigenous inhabitants – can adequately explain the degree of hatred aroused. Chavez – who is more black and Indian than white, and makes no secret of his aim to be the president of the poor – is the focus of this racist rage.
The trump card of the opposition, in April as in December, has been the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, often described as the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, and an important supplier to the US. Nationalised more than 25 years ago, it has been run over the years for the exclusive benefit of its employees and managers – its profits being invested everywhere except Venezuela. Before the arrival of Chavez, it was being prepared for privatisation, to the satisfaction of the engineers and directors who would have benefited. But with a block placed on privatisation by the new Venezuelan constitution, the company’s middle class and prosperous elite has been happy to be used as a shock weapon by the leaders of the Pinochet-style opposition, and they have tried to bring their entire industry to a halt.
The vital task for Chavez is to bring the oil company back under government control, replacing the conservative management with the radical executives who had been forced out in earlier internal struggles. If he is to support the crews loyal to the government on tankers such as the Pilin Leon, he may yet need to impose a state of emergency to regain the upper hand.
* Richard Gott is the author of In The Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela