Chris Harman


Challenge to Chavez

(14 December 2002)

Comment, Socialist Worker, No.1830, 14 December 2002.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chris Harman on the crisis gripping Venezuela

THE UPPER classes of Venezuela, in South America, last week launched another desperate attempt to overthrow the government of president Hugo Chavez. Their last attempt to do so, in April, ousted him from office for only three days before hundreds of thousands of poor people poured into the centre of the capital, Caracas, and forced the army to reinstate him.

The new attempt, like the last, involves what his opponents like to call a strike. In fact it is the closing down of much of the economy by the bosses’ Fedecameras organisation. This is backed by the right wing leaders of the main union federation, the CTV.

It follows a call at the beginning of October by a number of retired generals for the army to overthrow the government. Since then the ex-generals have based themselves in an expensive hotel in the poshest part of the city. There have been continual demonstrations of their supporters in the square outside.

The class character of the opposition’s so called strike was shown last week. The anti-government paper El Universal reported that Caracas was like two different cities.

The shutdown was complete in the wealthier eastern part. But there were hardly any signs of it in the poor western parts. Many shops had been shut down by their owners, but workers were still running bus and metro services and most of the banks were open.

By the weekend the paper Ultimas Noticias could write that “the stoppage never had sufficient forces to achieve its goal of getting the government to resign. It required support from within the armed forces or the state oil company PDVSA to be successful.”

The opposition used an incident last Friday to try to get this support. Shooting broke out in the square where it has been demonstrating since October, resulting in four deaths. It blames these on the government.

Over the next two days opposition leaders persuaded oil managers and technicians and businesses who transported oil to join the stoppage. By Monday petrol stations across the country were running out of supplies, and Venezuela’s oil exports to the US were threatened.

Chavez has described the attempts of the upper classes to get rid of him as a “class struggle”. But his response to these attempts has only partially relied on the backing of the country’s poor.

After the attempted coup in April he repeatedly called for “national conciliation” between the rich and the poor. Although the US had given some backing to the coup, he declared he was prepared to work to ensure the US government got its oil supplies.

And while Chavez denounced neo-liberalism in words, his government’s budget accepted the neo-liberal principle of cuts in government services. The result is that the poor have continued to get poorer. Meanwhile, public sector workers have been faced with job cuts and cancellation of bonuses to which they are entitled.

This has enabled corrupt, right wing union bosses to get sections of workers to line up with their employers against the government. Two months ago Chavez declared that if the bosses imposed another stoppage on the country he would call upon workers to take over industries and begin operating them without the bosses.

But, faced with the present crisis, his main response has been to rely on the army. He has sent troops to seize control of oil tankers whose captains refuse to operate them.

This is doubly dangerous. It means he is increasingly dependent on army officers who come from better off backgrounds and who could switch overnight to back the opposition.

And his reliance on the military makes it easier for the corrupt union leaders to paint him as a dictator opposed to the mass of people. In this way, those leaders have been able to win some employed workers to side with the employers’ federation.

It is not clear how this present crisis is going to end. The hatred of Venezuela’s upper classes for the government is such that even if this attempt to overthrow it fails, they will try again. And they will not be stopped simply by relying on a mixture of military action and talk of “conciliation”.

The US would love to see Chavez ousted. His left wing rhetoric and base among the poorest in Venezuela means the US does not trust him, especially with Venezuela accounting for some 15 percent of all US oil imports. But the failure of April’s coup caused George W. Bush’s government to stop pushing openly for the overthrow of Chavez.

It was afraid of civil war in Venezuela cutting off its oil supplies as it prepared for war on Iraq. But it would be overjoyed if the Venezuelan upper class did the job for it.

There is a leftward mood right across South America. Elections have given the presidency of Brazil to the leader of the Workers Party, Lula, and of Ecuador to a left wing army officer.

Next week sees the anniversary of the uprising that overthrew the Argentinian government for implementing an IMF programme. Nothing would please the US more than to mark the occasion with a sharp move to the right in Venezuela.

Last updated on 11 December 2009