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VENEZUELA
Right wing mobilizes bosses' strike
Can Chávez hold on to power?

By Bridget Broderick and Héctor Reyes | December 13, 2002 | Page 7

OPPONENTS OF Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chávez staged their fourth strike of the year in an effort to overthrow him as Socialist Worker went to press.

The misnamed Democratic Coordinator (DC), a grouping of oil executives, business and media leaders, Catholic Church officials and union chiefs originally planned the strike--which is really more of a bosses' lockout--to demand that Chávez call an early referendum on his presidential term.

In negotiations overseen by the Organization of American States (OAS), Chávez has already agreed to a February referendum. But opposition representatives then declared that the referendum was "close to a solution, but not sufficient."

The same forces organized a "strike" in April that was a prelude to the failed coup against Chávez. The president was arrested and held at a military base, while the coup-makers suspended the Constitution and dissolved the National Assembly. But masses of Venezuela's poor took to the streets to defend Chávez, and the coup collapsed in less than 48 hours.

On December 2, the first day of the current strike, most industries and businesses did not shut down. Since then, however, the national media have reported oil workers joining the work stoppage at refineries and on port facilities owned by PdVSA--the state-owned oil company.

This is a distortion of reality, for there is a great divide between rank-and-file production workers and management. While it is true that PdVSA offices are paralyzed in Caracas, oil workers at Puerto La Cruz have taken over production--with the support of the National Guard.

Ship captains stopped 13 tankers in Lake Maracaibo--from which 1 million barrels of crude oil are shipped daily. Chávez ordered the Navy to board the ships and protect refineries. While the Navy had to withdraw from some of the vessels it had commandeered, the overall picture is more complex.

When Socialist Worker went to press, Puerto La Cruz workers had taken over two ships and began loading them manually because the automated system--which is controlled from Caracas--had been sabotaged by management.

In the cities, there have been significant street protests by both Chávez supporters and opponents, although the pro-Chávez rallies have been notably larger. The situation has become more volatile since December 6, when gunmen opened fire on an opposition rally, killing three and wounding many. The opposition immediately accused Chávez of instigating the assassinations, yet no evidence has been provided.

The shooting took place at an opportune time for the opposition, since the strike had been faltering. The DC seized upon the incident to demand Chávez's resignation and for the OAS to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions against his government.

The U.S. government played a central behind-the-scenes role in backing the unsuccessful April coup. Yet the Bush administration may still be cautious after that diplomatic disaster. It has joined the OAS in calling for continued negotiations for a "democratic solution," but it would undoubtedly welcome a friendlier, less independent government to control Venezuela's oil during the upcoming war in Iraq.

Chávez still has support among wide sections of the population because of his moderate reforms in education, land and health care. But the economic crisis is eating away at that support.

Chávez has vacillated between taking on the opposition and giving in to their demands. Crucially, he's already conceded the February referendum after asserting for months that the constitution only allowed such a vote in August at the earliest. This has only undermined Chávez's own supporters--and no concession has been enough to satisfy the DC.

Nevertheless, community and workplace organizations have sprung up since April to defend Chávez's reforms and demand more of a voice in Venezuelan society. Some popular assemblies have called for jail for the coup leaders, an end to the foreign debt and equal access to the national media.

And in the current crisis, facing gasoline shortages, many workers have moved to take matters into their hands--as when the workers of Guayana moved to take over closed gas stations, many of them owned by foreign companies such as Shell and BP Amoco.

As the government and the opposition fight at the negotiating table, the fate of Venezuela will be really decided by how well its ordinary people organize themselves to fight for their rights at the grassroots.

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