Venezuela mass protest opposes bosses' strike

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Sat Dec 14 07:11:35 MST 2002

Argiris Malapanis, a revolutionary journalist, visited Venezuela as part of
a Militant reporting team some weeks after the collapse of the April coup.
Since he does not state that he was an eyewitness, I assume this  valuable
article, datelined Miami like others he has written since his visit, is
based his phone and computer contact with workers and peasant leaders and
other activists whom he met in Venezuela.  below.  Hopefully
Malapanis will get back to Venezuela soon.
Fred Feldman


Vol.66/No.48           December 23, 2002
Venezuela: mass protest opposes bosses' strike
(front page)

MIAMI--Some 400,000 peasants, workers, students and others
converged in Caracas December 7 to protest a six-day-old
bosses' strike and other provocations aimed at overthrowing
the government of President Hugo Chávez. Marching past
Miraflores, the presidential palace, they demanded the
government take firm measures against the pro-imperialist
opposition and their coup plans.

The same day thousands of protesters marched in an affluent
section of eastern Caracas in a quieter demonstration,
demanding Chávez's resignation. Fedecámaras, the country's
main business association, and officials of the
Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) called a work
stoppage December 2 demanding a rapid referendum on whether
Chávez should remain in office. The strike had limited
success and seemed to wane two days later. Opposition forces
then attempted to shut down oil production and distribution.
By December 7, oil exports from Venezuela, the world's
fifth-largest petroleum producer, slowed. Gasoline shortages
began inside the country.

On the evening of December 6, gunmen opened fire at an
opposition rally of hundreds at Plaza Francia in the
Altamira neighborhood of Caracas. More than 10 military
officers who took part in the April coup that failed to
unseat Chávez have been staging a sit-in there for months.
The site has become an organizing center for opposition

Three people were killed in the shooting and 28 wounded.
Security forces arrested seven people. One of them, a
Portuguese citizen, reportedly admitted to pulling the
trigger with a handgun.

Leaders of the pro-imperialist opposition used the incident
to blame the government for the killings and demand Chávez's
resignation. Government officials denounced these claims,
condemned the assault, and pledged to bring those
responsible to justice. Vice president José Vicente Rangel
called the shootings a "provocation" to prompt further

Massive turnout at pro-Chávez march

"About 30,000 people are coming to Caracas from Valencia,"
said Orlando Chirino, a leader of the textile workers union
in the country's main industrial center in a December 7
telephone interview. "Most are workers." He was in a bus at
the time on his way to Caracas for the march against the
opposition strike. "The more the capitalists attack the
poor, the more they are attacking Chávez, the more we are
determined to fight," said Nellie Yaerte in another

A health-care worker from Valencia, Yaerte spoke to the
Militant as she was getting ready to leave for the same
march in Caracas that morning. Yhonny García from Maracaibo
said 3,000 people made the nine-hour trip to the march from
that city, the country's second largest and the capital of
Zulia state, where much of the oil drilling and production
is concentrated. "Most of the media here and internationally
claim that people in Maracaibo are banging pots and pans at
the port to support the few pirates who grounded some oil
tankers to back the reactionary strike," he said. "But that'
s a very small part of the picture."

Mari Pérez from San Carlos, the capital of Cojedes, a
largely agricultural state, said hundreds of farmers and
others went to Caracas "to stand up for our rights." Among
them was her husband, Angel Sarmiento, a peasant. Sarmiento
toured visiting Militant reporters in July to land taken
over by dozens of peasant families from Compania Inglesa.

A number of those interviewed pointed out that at the heart
of the brewing class conflict are measures the government
passed a year earlier cutting into the prerogatives of big
capital. Significant among them is the Law on Land and
Agricultural Development, which legalized government
takeovers of some large estates and their distribution to
landless families. The opposition has also railed against
provisions of the Law on Fishing and Aquaculture favoring
small fishermen over large monopolies.

Participation was lower than expected, said Antonio
Aguillón, in a telephone interview while the pro-Chávez
rally was going on. "Because of the killings last night and
the last-minute change of date [for the march], there was
some fear and confusion and many buses did not make it to
Caracas," stated Aguillón, a member of the Bolivarian
Workers Force, a pro-Chávez union federation. "Dozens of
buses from the state of Medina, for example, were turned
back by police last night."

Alfonso Rodríguez, a leader of the Fifth Republic
Revolutionary Youth, said Chávez, in his speech to the
rally, was responding to growing demands by the toilers for
firm measures against those responsible for sabotage in the
state-owned oil industry, which is run by the PVDSA.

Chávez reportedly said the government will fire striking
tanker captains and replace managers responsible for
sabotaging oil production. He also announced his cabinet
will restructure the board of directors at the PVDSA oil
company, saying he is considering whether to accept the
offer of most board members to resign made the day before.

Developments in oil industry

On December 5 the Venezuelan navy seized a tanker filled
with 280,000 tons of gasoline. The tanker, Pilin Leon, had
been anchored a day earlier off Maracaibo by its captain,
Daniel Alfaro, a PVDSA employee, in support of the bosses'
strike to oust Chávez. The president called this "an act of

Officers backing the pro-imperialist opposition had grounded
another five oil tankers, most of them empty, from the state
fleet of more than 100, according to telephone interviews
and press accounts. Zulia Towing, the largest private
tugboat company on Lake Maracaibo, yanked all 13 of its tugs
from service to join the strike, AP reported December 5.
Protesters on tug boats had circled the Pilin Leon blowing
whistles to back its grounding. "Assaulting the PDVSA is
like assaulting the heart of Venezuela," Chávez said in a
televised speech that day. By December 7, the captain and
most of the crew of Pilin Leon had been replaced.

During the first week of December the National Guard also
arrested several PVDSA managers who tried to lock and weld
shut the gates of refineries to prevent production workers
from entering. According to several phone interviews and
Venezuelan TV reports, about 40 percent of the oil giant's
employees heeded the strike call, largely technicians and
administrative personnel. That halted issuing the necessary
paperwork for export cargo. For this reason, 23 tankers were
unable to load cargo and depart by December 5, bringing most
exports to a standstill. In a number of cases, technicians
shut off computerized controls in refineries as they left.

Most workers oppose bosses' strike

"The National Guard and many production workers have been
waging guerrilla warfare, by restarting operations through
manual controls until other technicians can be found," said
Yhonny García from Maracaibo. "Most production workers in
oil extraction and refining have not left their posts. The
managers and many in the administration are part of a caste
who don't want their privileges touched if the Bolivarian
revolution moves forward." Bolivarian is the term used by
backers of the president to describe the process unleashed
since his election.

By December 6, gasoline shortages began to be felt in
several states. "Here in Valencia the reason is that a
number of gas station owners shut down to support the
strike, or pump only part of the gas they have," said Nellie
Yaerte December 7. "The workers are not behind this. The
owners are the big capitalists, and like many bankers they
have shut down. We are against them, and they are against
us." It was a typical view expressed by workers in other

The bosses' strike began after the government rejected a
November 28 decision by the National Electoral Council (CEN)
to call a referendum February 2 on whether Chávez should
remain in office. The opposition had turned in 1.5 million
signatures of Venezuelans backing such a referendum in early
November. Even though the results would be nonbinding,
opposition figures hoped a poor showing for the president
would force him to resign. The government argued that the
country's constitution provides for a binding referendum of
this kind in August 2003, midway through Chávez's term.

The country's Supreme Court declared the November 28 CEN
decision not valid because it was taken by a 3-1 vote with
one of its members absent, where a law requires a four-vote
majority for this kind of ruling. The strike was preceded by
other clashes. Alfredo Peña, the mayor of Caracas and one of
the most prominent figures in the pro-imperialist opposition
coalition, used the metropolitan police under his control to
fire on pro-Chávez demonstrators in Caracas November 12,
killing one and wounding 20. This was one of many such
instances in the country's capital in recent months.

Peña has also refused to budge in a labor dispute with
nearly a third of the police and attempted to force into
early retirement pro-Chávez officers. After an armed
confrontation between police officers on opposing sides, the
president deployed the National Guard November 16 in armored
personnel carriers who took control of the city's 10 cop
stations. Chávez also replaced the police chief.

Many workers and the majority of trade unions in basic
industry opposed the reactionary work stoppage. "Fedepetrol
[the oil workers union], the electrical workers, Sidor that
organizes employees in steel and aluminum, the metro workers
union in Caracas, and many others came out against the
strike," said Orlando Chirino. "The textile and auto plants
run full shifts in Valencia, for example. Even chambers of
commerce in at least three states broke with Fedecámaras and
said no to the strike."

According to Chirino and others interviewed across the
country, a number of businesses--McDonald's and Wendy's
restaurants, a number of large shopping centers mostly in
well-off areas, several banks, and a few other
businesses--closed the first days of the strike in Caracas,
Valencia, and other large urban centers. At best, the strike
succeeded in closing 40 percent of such establishments in
these areas. Even the Associated Press reported December 2
that "while many shops were shuttered, Caracas' streets
bustled with pedestrians, cars crawled through traffic, and
cafeterias, shoe stores and video shops were open for
business." In most rural areas of the country, however, the
strike was a non-event."

In short, their strike was a failure, that's why they
stepped up their disruptions in the oil industry," Nellie
Yaerte said.

Faced with this situation, and divisions within the
opposition, Washington has not taken as openly aggressive a
stance against the Chávez government as it did in April when
a similar strike preceded the U.S.-backed coup. "We call on
all sides to reject violence, act responsibly, continue to
support the dialogue process, and respect constitutional
processes," said U.S. State Department spokesman Richard
Boucher December 6.

Aspirations of working people

The economic downturn in Venezuela, which the opposition has
tried to blame on the government, has continued to take its
toll on working people. The country's gross national product
contracted by 6.4 percent the first nine months of this
year, unemployment stands at 17 percent, and inflation at 30
percent. Despite this, opposition among working people to
efforts to oust the president has stiffened. "They can carry
a coup against Chávez. But then we come: those of us who are
with Chávez," Alexander Carrizo, a shoe repairman, told the
Associated Press November 30. "There is going to be a civil
war here if they topple Chávez." Nellie Yaerte pointed out
that "with all the problems, going back to what we had
before 1998 will take away any hope for a better future, any
hope to get rid of the slavery to the rich."

In a December 1 telephone interview, Armando Serpa, a farmer
in San Carlos, pointed to some of the problems Yaerte
referred to. "The Supreme Court declared four articles of
the Law of Land unconstitutional about two weeks ago," he
said. "One of them is Article 90, which allows expropriation
of large idle estates and distribution of those lands to
farmers like us. The government is appealing it. But this
shows that the courts and many institutions are filled with
the 'squalid ones,'" the term often used in Venezuela to
describe the pro-imperialist opposition. "We need a radical

Tomás Blanca, a fisherman in Cumaná, the capital of Sucre
state, made a similar point in a December 3 telephone
interview. "The credits to small fishermen laid out in the
Law on Fishing and promised by the government have not
materialized a year later," he said. "The big companies
still hold economic power and have their people everywhere
in the government. We support Chávez because he took our
side, but we need action."

Blanca's organization, the National Bolivarian Command of
Artisan Fishermen, is planning a nationwide meeting in
Caracas in January to press their demands, he said.

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