Since he was elected to power four years ago in a landslide election victory he has survived an assassination attempt, an aborted coup by sections of his military and is now facing yet another threat to his government due to a ‘strike’ called by the nation’s business and labour elite. Whether he survives the latest attempt to oust him or not the trials and tribulations of Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chavez are very familiar to all students of modern Latin American history.
It is basically yet another story of how changing any society peacefully from the top through the institutions of bourgeois democracy is never going to be an easy task if not indeed an impossible one.
Chavez’s latest woes started on December 2 when the Venezuela’s business organisations tied up with the country’s large (and largely corrupt) trade unions to call for a general strike demanding early elections as well as the President’s resignation. His opponents claim he has set Venezuela on a road of economic ruin, and has widened the country’s social divide.
Chavez, who has still two more years to go before completing his six-year Presidential term has refused to step down. However due to the intense pressure on national finances as well as functioning of various utilities due the strike’s impact on the crucial oil sector (which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports), he has also indicated he would be willing to discuss mid-term elections. Under the Venezuelan constitution no mid-term elections can be held before August next year but the opposition has demanded new polls as early as February next year.
Chavez has claimed the protest is aimed at returning power to a corrupt elite that ran the country for four decades before his 1998 election. The “strike”, which is in reality an employers’ lockout, is the joint creation of FEDECAMARAS — Venezuela’s big business association — and the CTV, or Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, a corrupt labour bureaucracy that is closely tied to the AFL-CIO in the US. The CTV is also a recipient of substantial funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a US agency created to funnel funds to foreign organizations that had previously been financed directly by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The organisers of the ‘strike’ are the same as those who led a similar protest earlier this year, which culminated in the April 2 ouster of the president by a section of the military. Barely two days after the coup, Chavez made a triumphant return to the Miraflores presidential palace after loyal troops restored him to power.
This time too there are thousands of Chavez supporters out on the streets challenging the so called ‘general strike’ concocted by the national elite. On December 10 the ‘Bolivarians’, who support Chavez and his reforms, surrounded the country’s main privately run TV stations, which are notorious for their anti-Chavez bias in coverage of national events. On December 7, a peace march brought 2 million out in support of the government, an event barely covered by the media. In early December, workers at a Pepsi-Cola plant in Aragua, Venezuela, took it over against the wishes of management in order to not join the national strike. Their slogan is “Fabrica Cerrada - Fabrica Tomada”, or ‘Close the Factories? We’ll take them over!”
So what is it about Chavez, a former military paratrooper and basically now a leftist-populist leader, that is arousing so much support among the Venezuelan poor and anger among the country’s elite?
Politically it is quite a straightforward battle — between the traditional business and political elite which has ruled Venezuela for nearly four decades and Chavez with his ideas of a Bolivarian ‘revolution’ that will redistribute national wealth and give the poor a share of the national wealth. Venezuela has one of the largest known oil deposits in the world as well as huge quantities of coal, iron ore, bauxite and gold. Yet up to 85% of Venezuelans live in poverty in shanty towns.
When Mr Chavez came to power in 1998, the old Venezuelan order was falling apart.
Unlike most of its neighbours, Venezuela had enjoyed an unbroken period of democratic government since 1958, but the two main parties which had alternated in power stood accused of presiding over a corrupt system and squandering the country’s vast oil wealth. Hugo Chavez promised “revolutionary” social policies, and constantly abused the “predatory oligarchs” of the establishment as corrupt servants of international capital.
Since coming to power, though Chavez and his supporters have encouraged the formation of so called ‘Bolivarian circles’— grassroot organisations of the poor to develop and defend their communities — most of the attempts at changing Venezuela’s socio-economic realities have been a completely top-down process.
One of the major policy changes brought about by Chavez has been the reversal of many neo-liberal economic prescriptions implemented by previous regimes in particular relating to privatisation of state enterprises and hire and fire labour laws. His government restored severance pay (eliminated by the previous government in 1997) for fired workers through a new constitution adopted in 1999. Social security for workers was set to be privatized in 1998, but was also impeded by the constitution of 1999.
The Chavez government has also introduced a new Land Law, passed in 2001, which is basically an agrarian reform law that tries to make rural life viable for Venezuelans and slow rural-urban migration at the expense of large plantation owners and real-estate speculators.
According to many independent political observers what is going on in Venezuela is a reversal of the situation in most of the countries of the world. Elsewhere, governments quietly pass neoliberal laws, privatize state assets, and undermine agrarian reforms under the direction of local elites. The people-and quite often the employees of the state organs to be privatized-protest, and are repressed by the government. In Venezuela, the neoliberals tried and failed to take over the government in April 2002.
Their remaining weapons are the strike, the media, and the dream of external intervention.
Another factor upsetting the Venezuelan elites is Chavez’s open defiance of the United States (the mentor of all Latin American elites traditionally) on many key foreign policy issues. Soon after taking power Chavez for example became the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and also publicly supported Cuba’s struggle against US hegemony in the region.
Relations with Washington reached a new low when he accused it of “fighting terror with terror” during the war in Afghanistan after 11 September. No wonder then that the George Bush administration openly supported the coup attempt against Chavez in April this year. During the current attempt to oust him the US has been more circumspect but has supported the call for ‘early elections’ demanded by Chavez’s opponents.
On the economic front- as always- an important factor playing a role in Venezuelan politics is oil. Venezuela is the world’s fourth largest oil producer and its oil industry is critical to its economy. Chavez’s ‘bolivarian revolution’ argues for a role for the state in the oil industry, the redistribution of oil income, and the use of revenues from this resource to build economic independence.
In 1974 when the oil industry was nationalised the state-run-oil company kept 20% of its revenue in operating costs and turned 80% over to the state. In 1990 it was 50-50 and in 1998, when Chavez was elected, the company kept 80% and turned 20% over.
Before the arrival of Chavez, it was being prepared for privatisation, to the satisfaction of the engineers and directors who would have benefited. But Chavez has blocked this move through the new constitution making it illegal to privatize the oil sector.
But given the fact that the administration of the oil industry is still in the hands of anti-Chavez forces, it has been possible for them to go on strike in order to promote privatization. Apart from the domestic tussle over the oil sector internationally Venezuela is the single largest supplier of the commodity to the United States, another important reason why the Bush regime wants Chavez to be thrown out of power.
At the purely social level Chavez’s coming to power also represents a shift in control of Venezuelan politics by the country’s minority white elites — descendants of Spanish conquerors from 500 years ago. Observers point out that underlying the fierce hatred that characterises Chavez’s opponents is the terror of the country’s white elite when faced with the mobilised mass of the population, who are black, Indian and mestizo (ethnically mixed origin).
“Only a racism that dates back five centuries — of the European settlers towards their African slaves and the country’s indigenous inhabitants — can adequately explain the degree of hatred aroused. Chavez — who is more black and Indian than white, and makes no secret of his aim to be the president of the poor — is the focus of this racist rage”, says Richard Gott, a respected commentator on Latin American politics, writing in the London Guardian recently.
Whether Chavez manages to last out his entire term in office or not remains to be seen. But if he is ousted through undemocratic means there is a good chance that the country might slide into some kind of civil war — which would basically be an open class war between the rich and the poor. q