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Who's behind Venezuela's anti-democratic opposition?
Why the bosses are on "strike"

January 24, 2003 | Page 8

BRIDGET BRODERICK looks at the reality behind Venezuela's "strike."

IN A world turned upside down, Venezuela has experienced an odd type of "general strike" since December 2. It isn't led by workers demanding higher wages, health benefits or political advances. In fact, Venezuelan workers and community organizations have fought hard to keep the economy running against the shutdown of oil refineries and schools, hoarding by food suppliers and lack of gas for transport.

The strike, now in its eighth week, is a lockout led by bosses--state oil company executives, mass media owners and shipping captains--who call themselves the "Democratic Coordinator." Yet their strike is highly undemocratic--and is directed against any political or economic advances made by Venezuelan workers, the unemployed or the rural poor.

When the government last year proclaimed laws providing moderate land reform, new fishing rights and more state control over Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA, the state oil company), Venezuelan elites organized the first "strike."

Equally unusual is the Bush administration's attitude towards the December 2 strike. Bush hasn't called for the strike to be outlawed the way he banned any job action by U.S. dockworkers on the West Coast last autumn. On the contrary, Bush defended the "strikers'" demands for new presidential elections, and encouraged renewed negotiations with the Organization of American States (OAS).

Never mind that Hugo Chávez has been elected twice to the presidency in the past four years--or that the constitution (overwhelming approved in 1999) allows a referendum on his term in August 2003. The opposition refuses to acknowledge this--and demands the referendum on Chávez happen according to their calendar (in February), not the constitution's. The U.S. supported the call for early elections, but later backed down.

Mediation talks are headed by U.S.-installed OAS president César Gaviria of Colombia. But the talks have been unsuccessful because of the OAS's role in trying to force concessions from Chávez.

Chávez still retains the support of many workers and the poor, who continue to back him amid increasing scarcity of food staples, eight-hour lines for gasoline, and workplace and school closings.

In December, oil workers and employees in other industries labored 15-hour days to offset the bosses' industrial sabotage. Angry residents in Caracas and other major cities surrounded media outlets to demand popular control of strike-supporting television and newspapers. Students and professors organized to keep schools and universities open--although some have had to close due to lack of fuel.

The opposition counted on the anger being directed at Chávez--but their strategy has backfired. Many Venezuelans are demanding harsher restrictions on the media and jail for oil executives, saboteurs and food hoarders.

They saw last April what the opposition really aspires to--a coup in which the opposition suspended the constitution and the Supreme Court, imposed censorship and used military violence against Chávez supporters. Chávez was reinstated only through the efforts of millions of Venezuelans from poor neighborhoods along with loyal military officers loyal to him.

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BEHIND THE facade of the "Democratic Coordinator," Venezuelans suspect the influence of former leaders of Acción Democrática (AD) and COPEI--the two main electoral parties who controlled politics in the country for 40 years.

Both parties, particularly AD, have been largely discredited for their role in impoverishing 80 percent of the population while a few corrupt leaders and their cronies grew wealthy on the nation's oil.

In the 1970s, AD President Carlos Andrés Pérez promoted huge state-sponsored industry projects with the nation's oil wealth and significant foreign loans. Administration friends siphoned off the money, leaving the industries to fail and the country in massive debt.

Pérez ran again in 1988, promising to stand up to international lending institutions like the International Monetary Fund. He won, then announced "The Great Turnaround" in 1989--a package of neoliberal reforms that increased the prices of basic staples, including fuel (in an oil-rich nation).

Outraged, Venezuelans took to the streets in spontaneous protests in Caracas and other major cities. The AD government ordered the military to kill thousands, and mass graves were later found. The upheaval--later called the Caracazo--was the first national protest against free-market policies, or neoliberalism, in Latin America.

Today, the AD party is so despised that it must hide behind the anti-Chávez media and the upper echelons of the military. But the media has thoroughly tarnished its image as "objective" through its role in the April coup and in the current strike.

High-ranking military officers are also dismissed as co-conspirators in coup attempts in the past year. That's why the opposition's front man is Carlos Ortega, head of the main trade union federation, the Confederación de Trabajadores Venezolanos (CTV), which represents at least 1 million workers.

Ortega withdrew the union federation's support for the last coup after the opposition suspended the constitution. Nevertheless, Ortega has little legitimacy among Venezuelan workers or the poor. As a traditional strongman leader of Fedepetrol, the main oilworkers' union, Ortega has long been under AD party influence.

The AD government subsidized the CTV, and AD members were the majority in the confederation. They headed the most important CTV committees and cut sweetheart deals with state-run businesses--especially in the oil industry. Fedepetrol even controlled lists of workers that the state-run PdVSA could employ as contract workers--a privilege oil union leaders used to line their own pockets.

More militant unionists were kicked out of the CTV unions in the 1960s, and then marginalized in the 1970s when they were allowed to re-enter the federation. In the 1990s, when the CTV barely fought against neoliberal austerity measures, the majority of Venezuelans viewed the main trade federation as the most corrupt social sector of the state. Corrupt practices like these made workers suspicious of union leaders like Ortega.

During the April events, the non-Chavista leadership of the steel, oil, Metro and public employees' unions--the most influential sectors of labor--criticized Ortega's alliance with the bosses' group, Fedecámaras.

While the current strike has slowed or stopped production in important industries, this has been due to executives and management's sabotage, not workers' participation in shutdowns. Many member unions of the CTV don't support the strike, including the electrical, transport and public employees' unions. Oil workers--members of Ortega's former union--haven't participated in the strike, although shutdowns have forced many workers out of refineries.

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CHÁVEZ HAS the support of workers and poor communities because he doesn't represent the old party traditions. He won elections in 1998 and again in 2000 on the promise of transforming Venezuelan society for the improvement of the masses, against the "putrid oligarchy" and for "capitalism with a human face."

He's held on largely because the majority of Venezuelans back him. When workers and residents of poor barrios organized with pro-Chávez military units in the streets to defeat the coup in April, they were radicalized far more than they had been in the previous three years of Chávez's presidency.

However, Chávez has been cautious to rely on the masses. He prefers to call on the military--forces he has more control over--rather than unionized workers and the unemployed. Moreover, Chávez tends to vacillate between negotiating with the opposition and denouncing them; only with great pressure from below has he listened to his own supporters.

Today, groups of workers, unemployed, students and community organizations are looking for political alternatives that transcend "Chavismo" and take on the opposition's continual assault on their lives.

Workers organized on their own to take over oil production and transportation, and community residents demanded the government take over foodstuffs being hoarded. These are political actions that encourage more people to try to take control of their society--and find a real alternative to the Democratic Coordinator's upside-down version of democracy.

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