Venezuela's "General Strike" Falters, President Chavez Weathers Storm

Article excerpt

By Justin Delacour

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to be weathering the storm of opposition protests and work stoppages that have caused great economic hardship in the South American country.

Support for the opposition's "general strike," which is perhaps better characterized as a business lockdown, appears to be fragmenting, as opposition leaders fear that their campaign of economic disruption could turn public opinion against them. After firing managers of the state oil company (PDVSA) who have been accused of sabotaging oil facilities, the government has brought oil production back up to over one million barrels per day. Chavez also sent troops into two idle beverage plants to confiscate refreshments that plant owners were accused of hoarding.

Opposition's early economic disruption had Chavez on the ropes

What the opposition terms a "general strike"--designed to force Chavez's resignation, new elections, or a non-binding referendum on his rule--got off to a weak start on Dec. 2 (see NotiSur, 2002-12-13). Businesses shut down only in Caracas' more affluent districts to the east; the bustling business activity in the center and west of the city remained.

However, the opposition's campaign of economic disruption picked up steam when most of PDVSA's management walked off the job.

Later it was revealed that striking PDVSA managers damaged the company's equipment--including computers and telephone cables--in an effort to impede the government's ability to get the industry back up and running. Efforts to shut down the vital oil sector were strengthened when oil tanker pilots joined the work stoppage.

With the country's major source of export revenue in peril at the end of the first week of the strike, the government began to discuss a non-binding referendum on its rule or advancing the date of the next presidential election. Chavez's opposition, emboldened by its newfound bargaining power, began pushing for the president's immediate resignation.

Opposition becomes overconfident

Carlos Ortega, the anti-Chavez head of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) and leader of the work stoppage, confidently declared that the campaign of economic disruption would "achieve the objective to remove Chavez."

"We are in the final hours of an authoritarian regime," Ortega boldly pronounced.

However, as in the past, Chavez's support from the country's armed forces would prove pivotal in stifling the opposition's plans.

Last April's failed coup against the Chavez government provided the president with the opportunity to cashier officers who exposed themselves as disloyal to him. Thus, today the military is more solidly behind Chavez than before. Calls by some members of the opposition for military intervention against his government have gone unheeded. The military's loyalty to Chavez has allowed him to dig in and gradually break the opposition's campaign of economic disruption.

On Dec. 22, the government achieved its first major victory in its efforts to break the oil strike when it captured the striker-controlled oil tanker Pilin Leon. The tanker's rebel captain had become a cause celebre among the opposition when he anchored the tanker in Lake Maracaibo in defiance of the government (see NotiSur, 2003-01-10). Although daily oil production remains at less than half than normal, it has improved markedly from its December low of 150,000 barrels per day.

By late December, some members of the opposition began making statements suggesting that their campaign to oust Chavez through economic disruption was faltering. A Chavez opponent and Caracas city councilor, Enrique Ochoa Antich, suggested that the opposition should consider ending the work stoppage and focus on the non-binding referendum, since the strike was hurting the country.

By the start of the new year, business participation in the strike was fraying, especially in the commercial sector where some owners of small businesses and shops had reopened to try to recoup massive sales losses over Christmas. …