Venezuela: Union Candidate Backed by President Hugo Chavez Loses Election

Article excerpt

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez observed the third anniversary of his election while facing defeat in a recent labor election, a national strike called by Venezuela's business and labor sectors, opposition street protests, and growing complaints that he has yet to respond to the needs of the country's poor majority.

Since his election Dec. 6, 1999, Chavez has radically transformed the political system and maintained strong public support. But opinion polls indicate that Venezuelans are still waiting for the president's "peaceful revolution" to improve their lives. The government's inability to make good its public promises to tackle violent crime, widespread poverty, and unemployment is clearly frustrating and disappointing to many ordinary citizens.

"What Chavez has been losing is the benefit of the doubt...people want jobs, safety on the streets, and obviously they judge the government very badly on both," said Luis Vicente Leon of the private polling company Datanalisis.

Labor elections bring Chavez a notable defeat

Recent labor elections saw Aristobulo Isturiz, the candidate backed by Chavez, lose to opposition candidate Carlos Ortega. The elections were to choose the 17-member Executive Committee for the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) and the leaders of the unions in each of the country's 23 states.

Ortega, a strong critic of the government who led a successful four-day oil strike for higher pay last year, took 57% of the votes. Isturiz obtained 16%, while Alfredo Ramos received 11% and two other candidates took less than 10% each.

Ortega's campaign called for "preventing the CTV from becoming a union that is submissive to the government-boss." But following the election, Ortega said the CTV would not become a vehicle for the opposition to destabilize Chavez's government. "The president can relax," said Ortega. "It will not be the CTV that fills the void of opposition to the government. We will not be an appendix of any party. We will act in defense of workers and their families."

Chavez decrees set off protests

On Nov. 13, Chavez announced the completion of a package of laws aimed at stimulating the economy, laws he was granted special authority to enact without parliamentary debate. Chavez's opponents protested the measures, saying the government had failed to consult before enacting them.

But Chavez insisted that all the laws had been widely discussed among "lawyers, economists, social activists, and campesinos."

Among the most contentious pieces of legislation was a law that would allow a government agency to expropriate land it deems to be unproductive (see NotiSur, 2001-09-14). The land law aims to eliminate large, idle private rural estates and distribute the land to poor campesinos.

Chavez defended the law as the only way to avoid civil war in Venezuela, which has one of the most uneven land distributions in the Western Hemisphere, with 1% of the population owning more than 60% of the arable land. Chavez said large landholders "are opposed to the interests of the majority of Venezuelans."

A new Hydrocarbons Law nearly doubles royalty payments and gives majority control of projects to the government. Under the law, state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) must hold a minimum 51% stake in all future joint-venture projects involving exploration, exploitation, transportation, and delivery. …