To get rid of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's opposition tried
using the military. That didn't work. Now they are enlisting the
country's other major force: the oil industry.
A week-old strike has virtually shut down Venezuela's state-run
oil company, PDVSA, reducing production by 40 percent, according to
industry sources. Exports have halted, and gas shortages are being
felt throughout the country.
For a country that relies on oil for three-quarters of its gross
domestic product, observers say that a protracted battle involving
the country's oil supply could be the difference in whether Chavez
stays or goes. "I see this practically as trench warfare," says
economist Orlando Ochoa. "It's a question of who is worn down
The strike, which began last Monday, is the third general strike
since the beginning of the year. Strikes and marches have been used
with mixed success by Chavez opponents. Back in April, following
days of protests and the killing of 19 demonstrators by Chavez
loyalists, Chavez was briefly ousted by a military coup, but
returned to power less than 48 hours later. Some strikes have lasted
a day or two, but with little effect.
But as the current work stoppage moves into its second week, the
difference this time may be the oil factor.
"The flagship of the fight against Chavez is PDVSA," says Mr.
Ochoa. Chavez took to the airwaves for five hours on Sunday saying
he had plans to replace PDVSA's board, which had already offered to
resign. Chavez also said that Venezuelan law allowed him to use the
Army to guarantee the running of oil-related public services, such
as refineries, gasoline stations, and distribution.
"This is what we have started to do, and we are going to increase
it," he said. Yesterday, the national guard commandeered delivery
trucks to ensure that gas stations would remain open.
But opposition leaders denounced what they called the creeping
"militarization" of oil sites.
"You can't resolve this crisis through the simple military
occupation of oil installations," opposition spokesman Cesar Perez
told reporters. Analysts say that military personnel do not have
either the experience or qualifications to manage huge oil tankers
or to operate complex automated refineries or loading terminals.
The ongoing strike is being felt by other industries as well.
"When you cut oil production," says Jorge Kamkoff, a member of the
board of the state petroleum corporation PDVSA, "you have to cut
gas. And when you cut gas, that brings supply problems. …