The ‘general strike’ called by the opposition in Venezuela is now on its eighth day. The strike is the fourth called by the opposition over the past year, including the failed coup attempt in April. The economy is suffering. There have been at least three killed in the violence already, in a shooting on December 6 in Caracas, and although it is unclear whether the opposition to the Chavez government were responsible for the shooting, they have labeled it the ‘Altamira Massacre’ and one of their leaders– Carlos Ortega, head of one of the opposition unions-asked for an external intervention to remove Chavez because of it. On December 3, the anti-Chavez forces stopped a bus, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire earlier today to enforce the strike-only the driver was inside, and he escaped unharmed. On the fourth day of the strike the captains of the oil tankers began a blockade on the transport of oil to and from Venezuela.
The ‘Bolivarians’, who support Chavez and his reforms, are fighting back. On December 10, they surrounded the TV stations, a natural tactic in a country where the mass media is openly for the oligarchy and against the poor. On December 7, a peace march brought 2 million out in support of the government, an event barely covered by the media. Last week, workers at a Pepsi-Cola plant in Aragua, Venezuela, took it over against the wishes of management in order to not join a national strike. Their slogan is “Fabrica Cerrada – Fabrica Tomada”, or ‘Close the Factories? We’ll take them over!” The government has sent troops to take over the oil installations and there are reports that oil workers in some parts of the country are working. But the strike has slowed oil production and the economy in general.
Much of this struggle is about oil. Venezuela is the world’s fourth largest oil producer and its oil industry is critical to its economy. Chavez’s ‘bolivarian revolution’ argues for a role for the state in the oil industry, the redistribution of oil income, and the use of revenues from this resource to build economic independence. But since 1974, the oil industry has been moving in the opposite direction. At that time, the state-run-oil company kept 20% of its revenue in operating costs and turned 80% over to the state. In 1990 it was 50-50 and in 1998, when Chavez was elected, the company kept 80% and turned 20% over. What the neoliberals had in mind in the late 1990s was full privatization-not a reversal of the trend of the previous 20 years. Added to this, the administration of the oil industry is in the hands of anti-Chavez forces, making it possible for them to go on strike in order to promote privatization.
What are Chavez’s other crimes? Severance pay was restored in the constitution of 1999, after being eliminated in 1997. Social security was set to be privatized in 1998, but was also impeded by the constitution of 1999. The Land Law, passed last year, was an agrarian reform law that tries to make rural life viable for Venezuelans and slow rural-urban migration at the expense of large plantation owners and real-estate speculators.
What is going on in Venezuela is a reversal of the situation in most of the countries of the world. Elsewhere, governments quietly pass neoliberal laws, privatize state assets, and undermine agrarian reforms under the direction of local elites. The people-and quite often the employees of the state organs to be privatized-protest, and are repressed by the government. In Venezuela, the neoliberals tried and failed to take over the government in April 2002. Their remaining weapons are the strike, the media, and the dream of external intervention.
The strike is becoming a war of attrition. Many workers defied the strike from the beginning, but if the skilled work of the oil industry is monopolized by the neoliberal opposition, the strike will continue to hurt the economy. The media continues to be a totally partisan, active member of the opposition.
What about external intervention? The opposition clearly isn’t hoping for external intervention from the Worker’s Party government in Brazil-it is, instead, hoping for help from a northern country that happens to be in the business of ‘regime change’. The United States is militarily and politically preparing for a war in Iraq. Many analysts believe that a US intervention in Venezuela shouldn’t be ruled out, and that Colombia’s civil war will offer a pretext for such an intervention. While the US has made it clear that it would recognize a Venezuelan government that successfully overthrew Chavez, preparations for a direct military intervention do not seem to be in the works in the short term.
Hans Dieterich argues that the opposition’s impatience is because time is on the side of the government. In January, the Land Law and the Hydrocarbon Law come into effect, strengthening the government’s hand. Last April, the coup plotters lost much of their support in the middle class and the military during their 24 hour dictatorship. The poor are committed to defending the gains they have made, and are continuing to organize and learn from each attack of the opposition.
There is also a small, but growing movement of international solidarity with Venezuelans. There are solidarity committees that have formed in the US and elsewhere since the coup in April, and delegations traveling to Venezuela to exchange with the bolivarians. It is to be hoped that the World Social Forum 3 in Porto Alegre does a better job of hosting and hearing from people from Venezuela’s remarkable movement than it has in previous years. Internationalists can sometimes find it difficult to support a government, however popular, out of a sensible desire to not become apologists for any regime. But so long as Venezuela’s regime acts in the interests of the people, it merits international support and solidarity, and needs it.
Marta Harnecker, a Chilean sociologist, has been following events in Venezuela closely and recently interviewed Chavez for 15 hours. Just two weeks ago she stated her belief that “if ChÃ¡vez wanted to lead an insurrection today, he would have the strength to do it. That is, the people and the army at this moment would permit a victorious insurrection. The problem is what will happen tomorrow. I think he’s sufficiently mature to understand the correlation of forces in which he finds himself and to understand that insurrection would not be the solution.” The solution, instead, is to continue with democracy, to continue to struggle honourably against opponents who fight dirty. Venezuelans should not have to face this battle alone.