Chavez survives; supporters radicalize

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Sat Jan 18 23:08:54 MST 2003

Guardian correspondent Richard Gott is the author of 'In the Shadow of the
Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela, the
indispensable English-language book on the current
Venezuelan revolution, its historical background, and the political
biography of  the Venezuelan president.
Fred Feldman

The great survivor

   Conservative attempts to engineer the overthrow of
   President Chavez have radicalised his supporters

Richard Gott
Friday January 17, 2003
The Guardian,3604,876362,00.html

The extraordinary and unprecedented events in Venezuela
in recent weeks that have sent the world oil price
soaring (though controlled this week by an Opec decision
to permit a small increase in production) appear to be
concluding with President Hugo Chavez ever more firmly
in the saddle. When the conservative opposition to his
radical government embarked on a nationwide and open-
ended strike at the beginning of December, accompanied
by the almost daily mobilisation of its supporters in
the streets of Caracas and other major towns, the
purpose was to bring about the president's downfall,
through resignation or military coup d'etat. Yet
although this strategy has done immense damage to the
economy, almost bringing the all-important oil industry
to a halt, Chavez has never shown the slightest sign of
giving in.

Since the new year, he has been fighting back with
vigour, leaving a divided and leaderless opposition -
who never expected their strike to last beyond Christmas
- with an uncertain future. Chavez is a popular and
democratically elected president, and he is firmly
backed by the armed forces. A former army officer
himself, he has an intimate knowledge of the
institution, and he is well aware that the opposition's
attempt to cripple the nationalised oil industry - the
icon of the country's nationalists - has not been
popular with the soldiers.

He has now been given carte blanche to crush the strike,
and has stepped up his rhetoric accordingly. The period
of dialogue and conciliation, embarked on after an
unsuccessful coup attempt last April, is over. More than
a thousand strikers in the oil industry have been sacked
(mostly those in the managerial class); the army has
been brought in to guard installations, ports and
pipelines; the company itself has been reorganised and
split into two regional entities; and the street
demonstrations - for and against - are now being tightly
controlled by the national guard.

Last weekend, a newly confident Chavez announced that he
would send in the troops to stop the hoarding of food,
and to keep schools and banks open. He has threatened to
revoke the licences of four private television channels
that have been campaigning for his overthrow. An upbeat
oil minister claims that oil production should be nearly
back to normal within a month.

This change of mood in Venezuela is a reflection of a
change that is sweeping Latin America, coupled with an
atmosphere of uncertainty in Washington, whose chief
strategists have preoccupations elsewhere. The election
of leftwing presidents in Brazil and Ecuador provides a
beacon of hope for Chavez, if not necessarily a
lifeline. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was inaugurated in
Brasilia on New Year's Day, and Lucio Rodriguez (another
progressive former colonel) took office this week. The
gathering of Latin American presidents in Ecuador for
this ceremony has seen the formation of a group of
"friends of Venezuela", designed, through the good
offices of the Organisation of American States, to find
a peaceful solution to the Venezuelan crisis.

Meanwhile, the trumpet in Washington sounds with an
unsure tone. The departure of Otto Reich, who failed to
secure the support of Congress for his appointment as
the government's chief Latin American operative, was a
blow to the neo-conservatives in government, as is the
resignation of Mexico's pro-American foreign minister
Jorge Castaneda. Democrats in Congress are also making
themselves heard - a group of them came out this month
with a message of support for Chavez.

Chavez, to the dismay of the opposition, is now embarked
upon a radicalisation of what he has always perceived as
"a revolution". The country's poor majority is mobilised
behind him in a way that was unimaginable a year ago.
When schools joined the strike last week, parents and
pupils in the poorer shanty towns organised to keep them
open. Banks, newspapers and television channels now live
under threat of expropriation.

The opposition, caught on the back foot, is still a
formidable force. It consists of a bizarre assortment of
discredited politicians and trade unionists from the
ancien regime, oil executives from the nationalised oil
company, important business interests, media magnates
and large swaths of a middle class with its feet in
Venezuela and its head in the suburban culture of the

Much of this middle class has been led by the media and
opinion polls, and by the large size of its protest
demonstrations, into believing that it forms the
majority of the country, and is justified in demanding
the president's resignation. Yet demonstrations are a
notoriously inadequate guide to voting intentions in
Latin America, and opinion polls in third world
countries rarely reflect the views of the shanty towns.

By conjuring up the country's forgotten underclass, the
poor and the hitherto politically invisible, Chavez has
unleashed forces that will be difficult for him, or an
alternative government, to put back into the bottle.

· Richard Gott is the author of In the Shadow of the
Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of
Venezuela (Verso)


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