Venezuela on the Brink. (Comment)

Article excerpt

Caracas

As the general strike against President Hugo Chavez entered its third week in early December, a major TV channel broadcast statements by baseball hero Andres Galarraga and other celebrities calling on Venezuelans to put aside differences for the sake of peace. What was significant about the TV spots was that the channel, along with the rest of the Venezuelan media, has played a key role in promoting the strike as well as marches and acts of civil disobedience sponsored by the opposition. Galarraga's plea--made beside a statue of the Virgin Mary--reflects the conviction among the nation's 50 percent who are neither pro-government nor pro-opposition that Venezuela is on the brink of civil war.

Chavez counts on active support among popular sectors, specifically those lacking steady employment and labor benefits of any kind, who make up more than half the work force. He also counts on a more loyal armed forces than this past April, when a group of officers removed him from office for forty-eight hours. On the other hand, his radical rhetoric favoring the poor over the "privileged" has alienated the middle class, despite his recent efforts to create his own movement called "the positive middle class." The middle- and upper-class eastern part of Caracas has solidly supported the strike and its mobilizations.

While the success of the strike call has been at best mixed in commerce, public education, public transportation and the steel and aluminum industries, a large majority of administrative employees and executives of the all-important state petroleum company PDVSA (the fourth-largest US oil supplier and owner of Citgo) responded positively, as did many in charge of fuel transportation. When delays in gasoline distribution produced three-hour lines at the pumps on December 18, the government decreed that private trucks carrying fuel and food could be taken over and run for the duration of the conflict. Carlos Fernandez, president of the main business organization Fedecamaras, called the measure a "violation of property rights." A point of honor of the pro-Chavez movement is 100 percent state ownership of PDVSA, incorporated into the nation's new Constitution in 1999.

The opposition's militancy dates back not to 1998, when Chavez was elected president, but to 2001, when he radicalized his government by prioritizing economic and social reform. In November of that year he passed agrarian reform and legislation prohibiting private control of joint ventures for oil exploitation. Fedecamaras reacted by calling a one- day general strike. The business organization was joined by the main labor federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), whose leadership Chavez refused to recognize on the grounds that it had held fraudulent internal elections. Since then the CTV and Fedecamaras have called three more general strikes, including the one in April that led to the abortive military coup.

One unique feature of the general strike that began on December 2 is the absence of any demand other than the removal of President Chavez, either by resignation or immediate elections. …