Venezuela: racist opposition

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Tue Dec 10 05:40:24 MST 2002

Racist rage of the Caracas elite

Venezuela's embattled president faces a Pinochet-style opposition

Richard Gott
Tuesday December 10, 2002
The Guardian

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

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