Chávez on the Defensive

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s efforts to transform the nation’s organized labor unions into an officially sanctioned movement closely aligned with the general’s populist “Bolivarian revolution” have opened a Pandora’s box of political unrest that could prove difficult for the administration to contain or control.

Raquel García, correspondent for the centrist El Universal of Caracas (April 12), cited criticism of the government by former Deputy Labor Minister César Augusto Carballo for seeking to engage in “the old practice of turning the labor movement into an appendage of the [ruling] political party....This situation complicates the task of the union leadership, who on the one hand support the government’s program, but at the same time must respond to the workers’ interests.”

Approval in December, over vehement organized labor protests, of a referendum clearing the way for a potential purge of union leaderships unleashed a wave of strike actions in the first three months of the year, including walkouts by the powerful oil workers’, teachers’, and steelworkers’ unions in disputes over wages, benefits, and other workplace issues.

Chávez’s personal popularity among the organized labor rank-and-file “has not been sufficient for [pro-government] union leaders to achieve the desired acceptance among the workers,” Carballo told García. Columnist Fernando Luis Egaña, writing in the independent Diario 2001 of Caracas (April 12), cautioned that the Chávez regime is destabilizing Venezuela’s social peace through its encouragement of squatter incursions on privately owned farms, reinforced by demagogic threats by Chávez suggesting that farm owners who defend their property rights could face legal action. “Not only does this serve no goal of justice, but it marks a retreat into uncertainty, disinvestment, and rural violence,” Egaña said.

Such “vengeful” government actions pitting sectors of Venezuelan society against each other reflect the Chávez regime’s core philosophy of “moral supremacy,” Egaña argued. “Since the regime is always right, those who oppose its executive orders are labeled, ipso facto, as enemies of the ‘revolutionary truth.’ ”