BY STUART MUNCKTON
"We have burnt our boats. There is no turning back", Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared in a national broadcast on January 6. "We will carry on consolidating and deepening the revolution", the radical pro-poor president stated. Subsequent events have shown that this was more than simply rhetoric.
Chavez's defiance was in response to the economic shut down by US and Venezuelan big business, an act of sabotage that by January 24 had lasted around 50 days and cost Venezuela US$4 billion.
The aim of the shut down is to force Chavez to resign and call an early election. Pro-Chavez forces charge that it is part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Chavez used his January 6 speech to threaten harsh measures against those responsible for sabotaging the economy.
Since Chavez was elected in 1998, he has led a process, referred to as the "Bolivarian revolution", that has introduced progressive reforms and organised the poor. The Chavez government has built more homes in the last three years than previous governments have in the last 20 years. Children now receive two free meals a day at school. Wages of lower-paid workers have been increased three-fold and laws to begin land reform have been passed. For the first time in Venezuela, a free national health care system has been introduced.
While these measures have won Chavez the loyalty of the country's poor, who account for 80% of the population, it has enraged the US-backed wealthy elites.
Despite the economic damage, the shut down has so far failed and now Venezuela's capitalist class is facing an increasingly angry and radicalised working class and a government that appears to have lost any patience it might have had for acts of subversion.
At the centre of the bosses' and managers' shut down has been the state-owned oil industry, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), which provides 50% of the government's revenue. Although the majority of workers at the oil company are not on strike, a minority of managers and technicians have used their strategic positions and expertise to sabotage production, causing production to initially drop by up to 90%.
The government responded by sending in soldiers (who are, for the moment, strongly pro-Chavez after 400 military officers were purged for their role in the failed coup attempt last year) to seize idle tankers and take control of much of the industry. The blue-collar work force is taking a crash course in how to run the company.
According to V-Headline, a Venezuelan e-zine, PDVSA president Ali Rodriguez stated on January 21 that oil production is now up to 2 million barrels of oil per day (2.5 million bpd is the normal production level). Chavez has already announced the sacking of 1500 people involved in the sabotage of the oil industry and has announced a new board of directors for PDVSA.
The Chavez government has also taken measures to break the lock-out and prevent shortages. The government secured a court order that allows it to seize control of idle food production plants and expropriate hoarded products. On January 17, National Guard troops seized control of a Coca-Cola bottling plant and took away water, soft drink and beer. Troops also took control a processing plant belonging to the largest food chain in Venezuela.
Chavez also won a court order that enables him to take administrative action against the private media companies, which have spread lies and slander to discredit the government for the right-wing opposition. Private TV stations have given free publicity to anti-government demonstrations, while refusing to give any coverage to pro-Chavez demonstrations. V-Headline reported on January 21 that two TV stations are likely to be taken off air.
The moves against private property and the private media have sent a wave of panic through both the US and Venezuelan capitalist classes. The January 19 British Financial Times reported that business leaders were warning that US corporations face increased threats of government intervention and expropriation. They fear a "Cuban inspired leftward shift".
The Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce denounced the seizures as "illegal", despite being authorised by a court order. The chamber's touching concern for legality does not extend to the shut down of the oil industry, which it supports even though it is in violation of a Supreme Court ruling that the strikers return to work.
The right-wing opposition has used the Chavez government's moves to claim that Venezuela is moving towards military dictatorship. It has announced a day of mass civil disobedience across the country on January 24.
'Not a colony'
The government's actions have also been condemned by the US ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro. Shapiro is distrusted in Venezuela after he was caught hugging Pedro Carmona during the latter's brief tenure as dictator during the April coup attempt. According to the January 20 V-Headline, vice president Jose Vicente Rangel responded by telling the US ambassador it was not his place to criticise, insisting "[Venezuela] is not a protectorate or a colony".
The January 22 V-Headline carried a leaked letter from the Venezuelan Armed Forces (FAN) that strongly criticised the US ambassador for interfering in the internal affairs of Venezuela. The letter declared that FAN was "unhappy with the daily interference in the internal affairs of our country". Shapiro is requested to "not bother the president or his vice president with your daily 'sermons' as they are too busy to listen to your rants".
The letter warned that if Shapiro did not cease his interference in Venezuela's internal affairs, the FAN would recommend he be declared a "non-person" and ordered out of the country. The letter condemned both the US and Spain for "supporting the fascist right-wing opposition".
Pro-government forces are planning a mass demonstration of public support for President Hugo Chavez and the "Bolivarian revolution".
From Green Left Weekly, January 29, 2003.
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