Weisbrot on the reality of Venezuela's 'strike'

Anon Anon inprekorr at yahoo.com
Sun Jan 12 19:45:21 MST 2003


I've attached the complete article below, as the
Washing Post seems to have a very annoying survey
going before it will allow access to the article.
Nevertheless, some might find the survey amusing, it
seems to accept that I am a North Korean woman born in
1901...

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A41444-2003Jan11.html

A Split Screen In Strike-Torn Venezuela
By Mark Weisbrot
Sunday, January 12, 2003; Page B04

Walking around Caracas late last month during
Venezuela's ongoing protests, I was surprised by what
I saw. My expectations had been shaped by persistent
U.S. media coverage of the nationwide strike called by
the opposition, which seeks President Hugo Chavez's
ouster. Yet in most of the city, where poor and
working-class people live, there were few signs of the
strike. Streets were crowded with holiday shoppers,
metro trains and buses were running normally, and
shops were open for business. Only in the eastern,
wealthier neighborhoods of the capital were businesses
mostly closed.

This is clearly an oil strike, not a "general strike,"
as it is often described. At the state-owned oil
company, PDVSA, which controls the industry,
management is leading the strike because it is at odds
with the Chavez government. And while Venezuela
depends on oil for 80 percent of its export earnings
and half its national budget, the industry's workers
represent a tiny fraction of the labor force. Outside
the oil industry, it is hard to find workers who are
actually on strike. Some have been locked out from
their jobs, as business owners -- including big
foreign corporations such as McDonald's and FedEx --
have closed their doors in support of the opposition.

Most Americans seem to believe that the Chavez
government is a dictatorship, and one of the most
repressive governments in Latin America. But these
impressions are false.

Not only was Chavez democratically elected, his
government is probably one of the least repressive in
Latin America. This, too, is easy to see in Caracas.
While army troops are deployed to protect Miraflores
(the presidential compound), there is little military
or police presence in most of the capital, which is
particularly striking in such a tense and volatile
political situation. No one seems the least bit afraid
of the national government, and despite the
seriousness of this latest effort to topple it, no one
has been arrested for political activities.

Chavez has been reluctant to use state power to break
the strike, despite the enormous damage to the
economy. In the United States, a strike of this sort
-- one that caused massive damage to the economy, or
one where public or private workers were making
political demands -- would be declared illegal. Its
participants could be fired, and its leaders -- if
they persisted in the strike -- imprisoned under a
court injunction. In Venezuela, the issue has yet to
be decided. The supreme court last month ordered PDVSA
employees back to work until it rules on the strike's
legality.

To anyone who has been in Venezuela lately, opposition
charges that Chavez is "turning the country into a
Castro-communist dictatorship" -- repeated so often
that millions of Americans apparently now believe them
-- are absurd on their face.

If any leaders have a penchant for dictatorship in
Venezuela, it is the opposition's. On April 12 they
carried out a military coup against the elected
government. They installed the head of the business
federation as president and dissolved the legislature
and the supreme court, until mass protests and
military officers reversed the coup two days later.

Military officers stand in Altamira Plaza and openly
call for another coup. It is hard to think of another
country where this could happen. The government's
efforts to prosecute leaders of the coup were canceled
when the court dismissed the charges in August.
Despite the anger of his supporters, some of whom lost
friends and relatives last year during the two days of
the coup government, Chavez respected the decision of
the court.

The opposition controls the private media, and to
watch TV in Caracas is truly an Orwellian experience.
The five private TV stations (there is one state-owned
channel) that reach most Venezuelans play continuous
anti-Chavez propaganda. But it is worse than that:
They are also shamelessly dishonest. For example, on
Dec. 6 an apparently deranged gunman fired on a crowd
of opposition demonstrators, killing three and
injuring dozens. Although there was no evidence
linking the government to the crime, the television
news creators -- armed with footage of bloody bodies
and grieving relatives -- went to work immediately to
convince the public that Chavez was responsible. Soon
after the shooting, they were broadcasting grainy
video clips allegedly showing the assailant attending
a pro-Chavez rally.

Now consider how people in Caracas's barrios see the
opposition, a view rarely heard in the United States:
Led by representatives of the corrupt old order, the
opposition is trying to overthrow a government that
has won three elections and two referendums since
1998. Its coup failed partly because hundreds of
thousands of people risked their lives by taking to
the streets to defend democracy. So now it is
crippling the economy with an oil strike. The upper
classes are simply attempting to gain through economic
sabotage what they could not and -- given the intense
rivalry and hatred among opposition groups and leaders
-- still cannot win at the ballot box.

>From the other side of the class divide, the conflict
is also seen as a struggle over who will control and
benefit from the nation's oil riches. Over the last
quarter-century PDVSA has swelled to a $50 billion a
year enterprise, while the income of the average
Venezuelan has declined and poverty has increased more
than anywhere in Latin America. Billions of dollars of
the oil company's revenue could instead be used to
finance health care and education for millions of
Venezuelans.

Now add Washington to the mix: The United States,
alone in the Americas, supported the coup, and before
then it increased its financial support of the
opposition. Washington shares PDVSA executives' goals
of increasing oil production, busting OPEC quotas and
even selling off the company to private foreign
investors. So it is not surprising that the whole
conflict is seen in much of Latin America as just
another case of Washington trying to overthrow an
independent, democratically elected government.

This view from the barrios seems plausible. The
polarization of Venezuelan society along class and
racial lines is apparent in the demonstrations
themselves. The pro-government marches are filled with
poor and working-class people who are noticeably
darker -- descendants of the country's indigenous
people and African slaves -- than the more expensively
dressed upper classes of the opposition. Supporters of
the opposition that I spoke with dismissed these
differences, insisting that Chavez's followers were
simply "ignorant," and were being manipulated by a
"demagogue."

But for many, Chavez is the best, and possibly last,
hope not only for social and economic betterment, but
for democracy itself. At the pro-government
demonstrations, people carry pocket-size copies of the
country's 1999 constitution, and vendors hawk them to
the crowds. Leaders of the various non-governmental
organizations that I met with, who helped draft the
constitution, have different reasons for revering it:
women's groups, for example, because of its
anti-discrimination articles; and indigenous leaders
because it is the first to recognize their people's
rights. But all see themselves as defending
constitutional democracy and civil liberties against
what they describe as "the threat of fascism" from the
opposition.

This threat is very real. Opposition leaders have made
no apologies for the April coup, nor for the arrest
and killing of scores of civilians during the two days
of illegal government. They continue to stand up on
television and appeal for another coup -- which, given
the depth of Chavez's support, would have to be bloody
in order to hold power.

Where does the U.S. government now stand on the
question of democracy in Venezuela? The Bush
administration joined the opposition in taking
advantage of the Dec. 6 shootings to call for early
elections, which would violate the Venezuelan
constitution. The administration reversed itself the
next week, but despite paying lip service to the
negotiations mediated by the OAS, it has done nothing
to encourage its allies in the opposition to seek a
constitutional or even a peaceful solution.

Sixteen members of Congress sent a letter to Bush last
month, asking him to state clearly that the United
States would not have normal diplomatic relations with
a coup-installed government in Venezuela. But despite
its apprehension about disruption of Venezuelan oil
supplies on the eve of a probable war against Iraq,
the Bush administration is not yet ready to give up
any of its options for "regime change" in Caracas. And
-- not surprisingly -- neither is the Venezuelan
opposition.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for
Economic and Policy Research, an independent
nonpartisan think tank in Washington.


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