Venezuelaâ€™s â€˜National Strikeâ€™ has been going on for over a month. The opposition, who attempted a military coup in April 2002, has attempted to shut down the economy, and especially the oil industry, of the country in order to try to oust the elected government of Hugo Chavez. In response, a movement of supporters of the governmentâ€™s program has come out, as they did in April, to defend the government, the constitution, and its reforms.
The reforms are part of the â€˜Bolivarian Processâ€™. Named after â€˜the liberatorâ€™ of Latin America, Simon Bolivar, the Bolivarian movement aims at redistribution of the wealth of the country for the benefit of its poor majority– including land reform and reform of the state-owned oil company– and greater Latin American integration. The Bolivarian movement has also opened up space for democratic participation with constitutional reforms and assistance for community media, community self-organization, co-operative economic projects, and more.
This is an immensely popular program with the poor majority, but it enrages elites in Venezuela and in the United States. The media in particular have been active in presenting the government as anti-democratic and in distorting the popularity and strength of the opposition and their strike. The Venezuela Solidarity Group (VSG) based in San Francisco is one group from the US that has sent its second delegation to meet with Venezuelans and see whatâ€™s really happening on the ground, with a view to building solidarity between movements in Venezuela and the US. Diana Valentine is one of the activists on the delegation. She was interviewed by phone, in Caracas.
The strike in Venezuela has been going on for quite some time. Is it growing in size and strength, or is it failing? Is it shutting down the country as is being reported?
The majority of people here think that the notion that there even is a general strike is laughable. The graffiti on the walls says so, with lines like: â€œThis is the strike of the richâ€.
The media uses all kinds of tactics to make the strike and the opposition seem bigger than it is. One of the trademarks of the opposition demonstrations has become pot-banging. They have recorded pot-banging on CDs, and play it on loudspeakers, to make it sound like thereâ€™s more pot-banging going on than there actually is.
But even though the country hasnâ€™t been shut down, there are effects that you can see. Itâ€™s difficult to get gasoline. The gas stations have military guards in front of them. There is a bank strike starting this week, and the announcement of that caused a bit of a run on the bank.
The poor were hurt the worst, as always, but things have been getting better. The lines for gasoline are much shorter than they were. But Brazil has donated some oil, and the government has gone to great lengths to provide provisions to prevent hunger.
The main sectors that are still on strike are things like McDonaldâ€™s, Burger King, and the corporate chains in malls. These are closed, but those who could afford to go shopping at these establishments are mostly of the class that supports the opposition in any case. The poor shop at the markets, in the small shops, and those are still open. The beer and cigarette industries are on strike, so itâ€™s hard to get these things. But the Chavistas have adapted. The latest chant has been: â€œNo queremos cerveza, queremos una nueva PDVSAâ€â€”â€œWe donâ€™t want beer, we want a new oil companyâ€. Weâ€™ve been telling our hosts and counterparts that a strike in the United States that shut down beer, cigarettes, and McDonaldâ€™s would be a political victory.
On the street, people are out. Even the opposition is going about their business.
So you donâ€™t think that this general strike could force Chavez from power? What is the oppositionâ€™s plan? Could they overthrow Chavez this way?
No. The strike has been most felt in the oil sector and even there, the effect has been an increase in activism around the state oil company, the PDV. There are forums, people educating themselves constantly, around the oil company. They are on to the opposition, and if the strike is making them suffer, they know who is responsible. The public calls it for what it is: an attack on Chavez and on the basic services needed by the Venezuelan people. Itâ€™s certainly not turning them away from Chavez.
The sentiment described to us from the poor neighbourhoods isâ€”we might hunger, we might thirst, but we still support Chavez. This process, this government, gives us hope. People here have suffered poverty for so long, they have been disempowered for so long, and they know for certain that the opposition has no intention of changing that. They have faith that the Bolivarian movement, in what they call â€˜el procesoâ€™, will change that. There is no false idealism that it will happen overnight. They are committed to it for the long haul.
The danger though is that the opposition could aggravate itself. Today, the poor are suffering but their belief in â€˜el procesoâ€™, the process, means that they are working patiently, preparing. Mutual aid and co-operative organization have helped communities share their oil resources more efficiently. The opposition is arming itself and working itself into a frenzy, which is what happened in April and just last week on January 3, when the mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Pena, sent his police to kill 2 Chavistas. The media lies and repeats the lie that these were opposition members who were killed, but everyone knows that they were Chavistas.
The military is pro-Chavez. Some civilians are armed as well, and angry. But the public is fully aware that the opposition is trying to bait them into a violent confrontation and provoke a â€˜state of siegeâ€™, a possible intervention, and a repeat of April 2002. The general tone is one of trying to maintain the peace. Chavez called for this in a speech on January 5.
We met with a government specialist on social management, Jesus Salazar, at the Palacio Nacional. He says that the Bolivarians recognize that this is a long-term project. They know Venezuelaâ€™s problems are centuries old. They know the opposition is blaming Chavez for problems they (they elite) have created.
What are some of the effects of the â€˜Bolivarianâ€™ reforms that youâ€™ve seen?
One of the more amusing commercials the opposition shows on the TV has a white screen. The voiceover says: â€œTake the next 10 seconds to think about what Chavez has done for you in the past 4 years.â€ The clock ticks off ten seconds, and the voiceover returns to say: â€œNothing, right?â€
But there has been more housing built in the past 3 years than in the 20 years before that. Since Chavez took office, there are 1 million more children in school. One thing that many of the poor will think of during that commercial is the difference between having a home and not having one. There are basic needs and rights that are addressed and planned for: housing, health, food, water, but thereâ€™s also an even more important psychological element.
Being here you get the feeling that the way the Bolivarian movement describes itâ€”â€˜el procesoâ€™â€”is exactly right. They are in the middle of a process of organizing themselves. We know about the marches. But itâ€™s difficult to describe as someone from North America, where the left is divided and quite alienated from the public, this process where political action and social awareness are integrating themselves into daily life.
It isnâ€™t just about tens of thousands of people in the street, or even the constitutional changes that empower people. In everyday encounters thereâ€™s this spirit of changeâ€”after greeting each other on the street people will immediately start talking about the projects theyâ€™re organizing, all the organizing that theyâ€™re doing, studying the constitution, establishing co-operatives.
This started with Chavezâ€™s own attempted coup in 1992. To the public, Chavez has represented an opportunity to actually utilize the government to change their own lives. The 80% that live in poverty knew frustration, disempowerment. The Chavez government gave them an opportunity to meld their anger with an opportunity to act. An organizer with the Womenâ€™s Popular Circles (â€œCirculos Femeninos Popularesâ€) told me â€œBefore, politics was a dirty word. We had no faith in any of it.â€
How dependent are these movements on the government and on Chavez? Has the government been devolving power to these â€˜Bolivarian circlesâ€™?
Chavez is a leader who is looked up to. But the people who went out in millions to bring him back didnâ€™t do that for love of Chavez, but for the movement, their own movement, for the power they felt they had won. When the opposition ousted Chavez, they felt they had ousted the people as well. With his humble, indigenous and afro-Venezuelan roots, they feel that he really represents them.
In that sense it is a government of the people. People talk about it that wayâ€”that Chavez has made it possible for them to reclaim their power. They view the constitution as a tool that belongs to them. They describe participation and cooperation, the people leading themselves. The movement is much more than a political party, and itâ€™s much more than Chavez. These might sound like anarchist slogans, but the people deny that theyâ€™re influenced by anarchism or communismâ€”the movement is coming from them. Chavistas say they are are too busy working to study and adopt the labels of academic circles from North America or Europe.
We visited a co-operative called â€˜Fuerza y Poderâ€™ in a very poor neighbourhood called Pinto Salinas. For many of the 30 members, this was their first job. Many were quite young. The co-operativeâ€™s work is maintaining and renovating a city park. But they also co-ordinate marches. They have a motor brigade, and do security at marches, emergency transportation at demonstrations. Some members are assigned with helping others complete school, or help the children of members stay in school. The group, like every group, has a contingent working to analyze the constitution. People actually wave the constitution at demonstrations.
The co-operative receives government funding, but you can see that the group is organized, it makes proposals to the government: it is not a paternalistic relationship. The government is able to fund co-operatives like these because it has cut a lot of bureaucracy. The number of bureaucrats was cut in half and the workersâ€™ salaries raised threefold. There are no bosses, no overhead costs in the bureaucracy, so the government is able to fund a lot more small projects like these.
How much of the government is against Chavez?
The military is overwhelmingly pro-Chavez. Youâ€™ll see off-duty soldiers at the pro-Chavez demonstrations. There is a small (though highly publicized) opposition faction in the military.
The situation in the police is more complicated. Caracas is divided into boroughs. Some of these are pro-Chavez, and the police are pro-Chavez. In Libertador municipality, for example, you have Chavista police who the poor arenâ€™t afraid of. At the funeral of the two murdered Chavistas there were police from Libertador, who were in uniform and warmly welcomed. The Chavistas were murdered by Alfredo Penaâ€™s police, who have jurisdiction to operate in any of the boroughs. Pena is mayor of the entire city of Caracas. Heâ€™s also a rabid member of the opposition.
Predictably, government bureaucracy is the slowest to change. Members of the Congress and ministries are still opposition. This is inhibiting the implementation of the reforms.
Richard Gott in a recent article in the Guardian suggests that the opposition is partly motivated by â€˜racist rageâ€™. Do you see a racial element in this conflict?
Absolutely. Venezuela is a country of many, many skin tones. But at the funeral for the murdered Chavistas, the tones were on the darker side. The opposition leaders, on the other hand, are primarily white. Itâ€™s not a clear-cut line. There are some in the upper-middle class who are quite dark and anti-Chavez. Itâ€™s not sharp. But the description of Venezuela as a country with a majority thatâ€™s poor, brown, black, or indigenous and an elite thatâ€™s wealthy and white, is accurate. Chavez is proud of his indigenous and African roots. When the opposition press attacks him, they use words like â€˜savageâ€™. He represents the majority, and the majority understands that when the opposition demonstrates its contempt and hatred for Chavez, itâ€™s also demonstrating its contempt and hatred for them.
The new constitution includes indigenous rights right in its preamble. Chavez, and â€˜el procesoâ€™, give the poor, the victims of institutionalized racism, a voice theyâ€™ve never had before. The elites respond by lashing out. Itâ€™s a process of slow, low-intensity, so-far largely bloodless, class warfare.Diana Valentine is an activist based in San Francisco. Justin Podur is a writer and volunteer for ZNet. To reach the Venezuela Solidarity group, email [email protected]