An Imminent Coup in Venezuela?

It appears that the strategy of President Chavez’s opposition is to create as much chaos and disorder in Venezuela as possible, so that Chavez is left with no other choice than to call a state of emergency. This, in turn could either lead to a military coup or U.S. military intervention.

Given that Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the western hemisphere; it is distinctly possible that the U.S. government is going to intervene overtly, if it is not already doing so covertly. This means that the current crisis in Venezuela is probably a planned conspiracy to topple the Chavez government with the support of the U.S.

As I write this, on April 9, Venezuela’s largest union federation, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) has called for a two-day general strike. Venezuela’s chamber of commerce, FEDECAMERAS, has joined the strike and called on all of its affiliated businesses to close for 48 hours.

This was the second time in four months that the two federations, of labor unions and of business owners, decided to join forces and strike against the leftist government of President Hugo Chavez. What is happening in Venezuela? Why are these and many other forces uniting against Chavez?

Chavez took power in late 1998 in a landslide electoral victory, calling for a “Bolivarian Revolution,” in reference to Latin America’s hero of independence and Venezuela’s favorite son, Simon Bolivar. Since then, Chavez has tried to root out the entrenched powers of Venezuelan society, represented by a political and economic elite, which had governed Venezuela for over 40 years in a pseudo-democratic form by alternating power between two entrenched political parties.

Chavez first reformed Venezuela’s constitution, through a constitutional assembly and a referendum, making it one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. The old elite were nearly completely driven from political power in the course of seven elections, which took place between 1998 and 2000. However, the old elite of the labor unions, the business sector, the church, and the media are still in power and have recently begun making life as difficult as possible for Chavez.

Although Chavez originally had popularity a rating of around 80%, his popularity has steadily declined in the past year, supposedly reaching the low 30’s now. Whether the reason for this decline was the slow pace of his promised reforms, the lack of significant progress in reducing corruption and poverty, or if it was because of the incessant media assault on his government, is not clear – most likely it is because of a combination of these factors.

The conflict between Chavez and the old elite has recently come to a head. First, when Chavez passed a slew of 49 laws, which, among many other measures, were supposed to increase the government’s oil income and redistribute land. The chamber of commerce vehemently opposed these laws and decided to call for a general business strike on December 10.

Venezuela’s labor union federation, the CTV, decided to join the strike, supposedly out of concern for the harm the laws did to the business sector and thus to employment in Venezuela.

More likely, though, the CTV’s support of a general strike was in retaliation for Chavez having forced the unions to carry out new elections of the CTV’s leadership and for not recognizing its leadership, due to charges of fraud, when the old guard union leadership declared itself the winner of the election and refused to submit the official results and ballots to the government.

The second major issue, which has resulted in a serious challenge to Chavez, occurred when Chavez appointed five new members loyal to him to the board of directors of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, the largest oil company in the world and the third largest supplier of oil to the U.S.

Also, he appointed a prominent leftist economist and long-time critic of PDVSA as its president. The management of PDVSA cried out in protest, arguing that the appointments were purely political and not based on merit and thus threatened to undermine the company’s independence and its meritocracy.

Chavez has since countered that board members and president have always been political appointments and that the state needed to regain control over PDVSA because it has become increasingly inefficient, a state within a state, whose top management is living a life of extreme luxury.

Furthermore, and less explicitly, Chavez wants to assure that PDVSA adheres to OPEC’s production quotas, so that the oil price remains at a stable and profitable level. PDVSA, however, has a history of undermining OPEC quotas because its management places a higher premium on market share than on a good oil price.

Following a two weeks of protest and of labor slowdowns within PDVSA, mostly on the part of management, the labor federation leadership of the CTV, who all belong to the discredited old elite, decided to join the conflict in support of PDVSA’s management, arguing that it was acting in solidarity with PDVSA workers in its call for a day-long general strike.

The chamber of commerce rapidly followed suit, seeing this as another opportunity to humiliate and perhaps topple Chavez, and supported the strike as well. Considering the first day a complete success, the CTV and the chamber of commerce have decided to extend the general strike another 24 hours. However, as PROVEA, Venezuela’s human rights agency has noted, even though Venezuela’s constitution guarantees the right to strike, the strike is completely illegal because it bypassed the legal requirements for democratic legitimation of such a strike.

Given that a large majority of private businesses are members of the chamber of commerce and oppose Chavez, the strike has appeared to be quite successful. Whether workers actually believe in the strike and intentionally stay away from work in protest to the government, is almost impossible to tell, since most businesses were closed by management.

Many businesses were open and most of the informal sector was actively selling its wares on the streets as usual. Of course, all government offices and all banks, whose hours are regulated by the government, were open. Together, these sectors account for about 40% of Venezuela’s workforce.

The conflict in Venezuela has come to take on epic proportions, if one listens to the rhetoric of the two sides of the conflict. Both sides make extensive use of hyperbole, alternately calling the strike either a complete and total failure or a complete and total success.

Other examples of how passionate and heated the debates have become are reflected in the opposition’s repeated references to Chavez as a “totalitarian fascist dictator” who wants to “cubanize” Venezuela. Chavez and his supporters, for their part, refer to the opposition as a squalid (“escualido”) corrupt oligarchy.

Both sets of labels are caricatures of the truth. Certainly, Venezuela’s oligarchical elite opposes Chavez, but the opposition to Chavez has become quite strong and has grown far beyond the oligarchy, to include many of his former friends and supporters. On the other hand, even though Chavez uses a lot of inflammatory rhetoric, the opposition has yet to find a single instance in which he has violated Venezuela’s very democratic constitution in any way.

Chavez’ greatest failure, from a progressive point of view, probably lies in his relatively autocratic style, which is why many of his former supporters have become alienated from his government. Whenever someone opposed his policies he has tended to reject them and cast them out of his government circle.

The result has been a consistent loss of a relatively broad political spectrum of government leadership and a significant turn-over in his cabinet, making stable and consistent policy implementation quite difficult.

This loss of broad-based support has made itself felt particularly strongly during the recent crises, making Chavez look more isolated than he might otherwise be. Other than his party supporters, who are quite significant in number and come mostly from the poor “barrios,” the progressive sectors of civil society have been neglected by Chavez and have thus not been active. Instead, the conservative sectors of civil society, such as the chamber of commerce and the old guard union leadership are among the main mobilizers of civil society.

Still, Chavez’ policies have been almost without exception progressive in that they have supported land redistribution for poor farmers, title to the self-built homes of the barrios, steady increases in the minimum wage and of public sector salaries, and the enrollment of over 1 million students in school who were previously excluded, to name just a few accomplishments.

In terms of international issues, Chavez has been on the forefront in working for greater intra-Third World solidarity, in opposing neo-liberalism, and in supporting Cuba.

Figuring out what this epic conflict is about has been somewhat difficult for an outsider. Passions are so inflamed that it is practically impossible to find calm and reasoned analyses about what is going on. Are the chamber of commerce, the labor federation leadership, the upper class, and significant sectors of the middle class really primarily concerned about the “politicization” of PDVSA and the appointment of a pro-government board of directors?

Perhaps. But does opposition to these appointments justify a general strike? Definitely not. More likely these sectors are concerned that politicization of PDVSA means a loss of access to Venezuela’s cash-cow: oil. Not only that, the most common complaints one hears about Chavez have more to do with his style than with any concrete policies he has implemented. There often is a racist undertone to such complaints, implying that Chavez, because of his folksy and populist style and his Indio appearance, is sub-human, a “negro.”

It does not help that almost all of the media, except the one government-run TV network, out of about five major TV networks, and one out of approximately ten major newspapers is completely opposed to Chavez.

The media regularly cover nearly every single opposition pronouncement and rarely cover government declarations. Chavez, out of frustration with the media has relentlessly attacked the media for belonging to the old guard oligarchy and for printing nothing but lies, occasionally threatening them with legal action for slander.

The media has, of course, responded in kind, by accusing Chavez of intimidating journalists with his pronouncements and of sending gangs to threaten journalists with physical violence. The media has tried to embarrass Chavez internationally by taking its case to the Organization of American States and to the U.S., which have responded favorably to their complaints and have criticized Chavez for his supposed lack of respect for human rights.

The other thing Chavez has done to combat the media is to exploit a law which permits the government to take over all of the airwaves for important government announcements. All TV and radio stations are required to broadcast these announcements.

During the general strike Chavez decided to go all-out and interrupted all TV and radio broadcasts numerous times during the strike. The government’s use of the airwaves has now provided additional ammunition to the opposition and constituted an important factor in their deciding to extend the strike from one day to two.

Chavez’ greatest error has been his truly fundamental neglect for cultivating a culture which would support his “Bolivarian Revolution,” one which progressive sectors of civil society would support and promote amongst the population and internationally, even against a strongly oppositional media.

Despite this grave fault of his presidency, Chavez continues to deserve the support of progressives because the only alternative that has presented itself until now is a return to the status quo ante, where the upper class, together with selected sectors of the labor movement and the government bureaucracy share Venezuela’s oil pie amongst themselves, leaving the poor, who constitute three quarters of Venezuela’s population, to fend for themselves.

Currently, however, the most immediate and most likely alternative to Chavez is either a military coup or U.S. intervention, since Chavez definitely won’t resign and since he is legally in office at least until the 2004, when a recall vote can be called. This means that progressives around the world should act in solidarity with Chavez’ government and support him, if another Chile-style coup is to be avoided.

Gregory Wilpert lives in Caracas, is a former U.S. Fulbright scholar in Venezuela, and is currently doing independent research on the sociology of development.


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