Will Chávez Strike Out?

The uncommon show of business and labor unity in mobilizing a general strike that effectively shut down Caracas and other major Venezuelan cities on Dec. 10 poses the most serious political challenge to President Hugo Chávez since his accession to power three years ago.

Mariela Leon, correspondent for El Universal (Dec. 11), reported that leaders of the nation’s leading business chambers and trade unions estimated that the strike halted more than 90 percent of all productive and labor activity in the nation. “We are no longer weak or imperceptible, we are a force in the country that must be taken into account—and things must be set right,” strike organizer Pedro Carmona told Leon.

The flashpoint that ignited the December protest was Chávez’s unilateral decision to exercise extraordinary decree powers to implement a package of 47 laws without congressional review or approval, including a controversial land reform that authorizes the government to determine whether private landowners are keeping their property in productive use.

The specter of expropriations has chilled the climate for private investment and eroded business confidence, exacerbating the present economic slowdown and further diminishing “the probability of a genuine dialogue on the reforms,” observed Orlando Ochoa in El Universal (Dec. 13). “It appears that Chávez has in mind a social and economic scheme which no one except himself, the poorest sectors..., and the national armed forces supports.”

El Universal cautioned in an editorial (Dec. 11) that the decree laws marked “the point of no return” in a campaign by Chávez to “seize power and use it in an absolutely discretionary manner behind the back of the majority....These nearly three years of Chávez’s mandate have passed from crisis to crisis, driven by the conflict-oriented rhetoric of the president.”

In the wake of the president’s contemptuous refusal to negotiate with opponents of the decree laws, “the democratic disguise has fallen away...[and] the masks are off,” El Universal said. Domingo Alberto Rangel argued in Quinto Día (Dec. 7) that neither the Chávez government nor the opposition coalition of business, labor, and civic organizations can claim the moral high ground in the present political showdown. “There is no divergence in the confrontation..., of ideological character or antagonistic class positions,” he asserted. “It is a question of a clear and simple struggle between cliques for the control of power.”

As a result, he said, “there is a growing sense in Venezuela of disillusionment with all politics. “Lamentably, since [the country’s founder Simón] Bolívar died, the so-called republican alternation of power has amounted to the rotation of rascals in ransacking the budget. Civilians and military alike have succumbed to this weakness....As the gospel said, let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” Rangel wrote.