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From the March 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 3)

Latin America

Venezuela: A Nation on Strike

Robert Taylor, World Press Review contributing editor

Venezuelans shout anti-Chavez slogans in Caracas
Venezuelans shout anti-Chávez slogans in Caracas, Feb. 12, 2003 (Photo: Alexander Navea/AFP).
The bitter and increasingly desperate struggle between the government of President Hugo Chávez and a broad-based coalition of domestic forces demanding his resignation is nearing a potentially decisive climax. A debilitating national strike has paralyzed the nation’s oil production and commerce since the beginning of December. Even as the U.S., Brazilian, and other regional governments sought to revive a flagging initiative by the Organization of American States (OAS) to mediate the Venezuelan crisis, regional commentators observed that the positions of Chávez and his opponents on the core strike demand for early elections have grown so polarized that neither appears willing to blink first.

The wide but often fractious anti-Chávez movement that encompasses business chambers, trade unions, the national oil company PDVSA, and most of the nation’s print and broadcast media demonstrated both its determination and its growing frustration in launching a national strike that has pushed an economy already in deep recession to the point of outright collapse. Veteran correspondent Mauricio Sáenz of the Bogotá-based newsmagazine Semana (Dec. 16) observed that after weeks of escalating street protests in Caracas, reinforced by an asphyxiating halt in oil production that threatened to starve
the government of export and tax revenues, “the question is no longer if Hugo Chávez will give up power, but how and when.”

Sáenz traced the beginnings of the popular rebellion against Chávez to his failure to deliver on his promises of economic prosperity and improvement in the standard of living for Venezuela’s impoverished masses, compounded by pro-Cuban rhetoric, expropriations of private property, and expanded state intervention in the economy that antagonized an already skeptical business sector. “Very few would have imagined that the president who returned apparently triumphant from the coup attempt of April 11 would today find himself in the most absolute incapacity to implement his orders,” Sáenz wrote. “Shortly after that failed coup, government supporters were saying that ‘we have Chávez for 100 years.’ How wrong they were!”

Leading Caracas dailies sympathetic to the opposition provided extensive daily coverage of developments in the unfolding national confrontation, punctuated by recurring demands that Chávez abandon his position that the Venezuelan constitution forbids any recall referendum until August at the earliest.

Commentator Diego Bautista Urbaneja, writing in El Universal of Caracas (Jan. 16), observed that the opposition’s goal was “to create a situation in which Chávez would be obliged to negotiate an electoral solution” to the crisis. He conceded that the opposition “may have miscalculated in assuming that the civic strike was going to produce the exit of Chávez in a matter of days,” and that “the country continues to pay a very high price” from the disruption of business activity and the virtual shutdown of the oil industry, which alone accounts for one-quarter of national gross domestic product.

“But at its core, once it was decided to strike and the majority of the country made its political will felt in massive and striking form,” Urbaneja wrote, “all the responsibility for the costs that the country is paying fall back on Chávez who, in the name of the ‘revolution,’ has refused to do what any democratic government would have done in the face of such a mass appeal for an electoral solution.”

Regional commentators more sympathetic to Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” sharply criticized the opposition for precipitating an economic crisis that resulted in widespread domestic food and energy shortages and disruption in global oil supplies. Angel Guerra Cabrera, writing in Mexico City-based La Jornada (Dec. 26), argued that the Venezuelan opposition represents not a genuine popular democratic movement but rather an “agglomeration of the social classes and sectors displaced by Chavismo who have always been subordinate to Washington, its ideology, and its mode of political action.”

By contrast, he said, “The current government in Caracas is authentically democratic because it responds to the interests of the nation and not those of the oligarchy and big capital....This sets it apart in a Latin America whose government leaders are, in the vast majority, submissive to the dictates of  Washington.”

Anxiety is mounting that the strike and political standoff in Venezuela could send economic shock waves throughout the region. Bogotá’s El Tiempo (Jan. 9) observed in an editorial that the harsh “laws of the market and speculation” have had a destabilizing economic impact along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, posing a further challenge to a new Colombian administration already struggling to cope with a fresh wave of violence in that nation’s long civil war.

In Brazil, O Estado de São Paulo (Jan. 10) took a cautious view of efforts by new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to spearhead formation of a so-called “group of friends of  Venezuela,” which would join forces with the existing Organization of American States initiative led by former Colombia President César Gaviria to broker a political settlement. O Estado recognized that Lula’s warm praise for Chávez during the 2002 campaign had given way to a more distant relationship as the Brazilian president moved to mend fences with the Bush administration. But it cautioned that Brasilia’s coupling of mediation efforts with emergency energy shipments to Venezuela suggested that “the Brazilian government still confuses foreign policy with personal sympathies and does not discern clearly where the concept of sovereignty imposes limits” on such intervention in the Venezuelan crisis.

By contrast, political analyst Alvaro Vargas Llosa argued in Correo of Lima (Dec. 20) that the governments of Latin America were defaulting on a moral obligation to demand that Chávez abide by the democratic principles to which all members of the OAS should adhere.

“To sustain the tyrant of a neighboring country and to abandon to its fate a people who are being fired upon in the streets is the worst way for a Latin American government to legitimize itself before its own people,” Vargas Llosa wrote. Addressing the people of Venezuela, he affirmed that “in this era where countries are represented not so much by the governments up there as by the societies down here, know that you are not alone. Our leaders may not understand, but in plain words, we are all Venezuela!”

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