By December 6, merchant marine captains had also stopped work, choking Venezuela’s oil exports, the lifeline of the economy, by anchoring 13 oil tankers at sea (they were joined by two dozen more in the following days). The Association of Pilots closed down Aserca, one of Venezuela’s two major airlines. And while Fedepetrol, the oil workers union, opposed the strike, the managerial ranks at the state oil company, attempted to paralyze operations. As Venezuelan oil production plunged by 70 percent, international prices surpassed $28 a barrel, OPEC’s proposed maximum price.
As the conflict entered its second week, the general strike ceased to be the key issue. A small number of strategically located employees had transformed the conflict into a fight for control of the economy, particularly oil and gas production. Congressman Rafael Simón Jiménez, an independent, puts it this way: “This strike is no longer ‘democratic,’ in the sense that it no longer matters whether a majority of workers support it.”
Following Chávez’s election in December 1998, reforms have strongly favored labor at the expense of business, from agrarian reform to severance benefits. Fedecámaras, an organization of business interests that since its founding in 1944 had always refrained from political activism, now has moved steadily toward vocal opposition.
The process culminated in April, when the group, aided by CTV leaders (irked by Chávez efforts to displace them with his own union supporters), fostered a movement that ousted the President for 48 hours. The December 2 general strike is the fourth jointly called by the two organizations in a year.
On December 7, at a rally estimated by pro-government sources to be in the hundreds of thousands, Chávez called on his followers to maintain an ongoing presence on the streets. “The hour has arrived to wage the great battle for oil,” he said. “Oil belongs to the entire nation, not just an elite.”
Chávez then decreed an emergency reorganization of the industry, firing four top executives who had engineered the stoppage and arresting several of the striking oil tanker captains.
Venezuelans reaction to the strike has been largely determined by class — much as Marx would have predicted. While downtown and poorer neighborhoods have quickly returned to normality, affluent areas of major cities avidly support the strike, banging pots and pans every day after 8 p.m.
On December 10, the opposition called for the conflict’s transformation into an “active strike,” meaning street mobilizations. Shortly thereafter, the entrances of oil refineries were the unlikely scenes of middle-class protesters obstructing the arrival of workers, in some cases calling them “strikebreakers.” The slogans of anti-government protesters have been directed exclusively at Chávez, calling him an “assassin” and even “Satan,” with frequent references to his friendship with Fidel Castro. On the other hand, Chávista leaders characterized the strike as a “lockout.”
Venezuela may be on the verge of widespread violence. On December 6, three people were killed at an anti-Chávez demonstration. As political tension has reached a crescendo, class and even racial animosities have come to the fore (reflecting the prejudices of an elite that is lighter-skinned than those at the bottom). In an editorial it subsequently apologized for, the nation’s premier newspaper, El Nacional, called Chávez’s supporters “lumpen,” adding that they were prodded to take to the streets by a bottle of rum.
Although Chávez’s enemies seem overwhelming, he is in a stronger position than in April. As a result of that coup, Chávez identified and isolated his adversaries within the armed forces and consolidated his military support.
Another change favoring Chávez is Washington’s new posture. President Bush justified the April coup, and newspaper reports at the time documented the U.S. bankrolling of opposition groups. The recent exit of Otto Reich as provisional assistant secretary of state, whom Vice President José Vicente Rangel on different occasions has called a “liar,” a “clown” and a “provocateur,” may help improve relations. The Venezuelan opposition now openly criticizes U.S. ambassador Charles Shapiro for maintaining a distance from the impasse.
A comment made by Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer on December 13 supporting immediate elections in Venezuela was retracted days later, thus committing Washington even more to strict neutrality. As Washington prepares for armed conflict in Iraq, its interest in stable oil prices and production overshadows all other concerns.
But the United States has another reason for staying neutral, namely the depth of political and social hostilities in Venezuela. Overt support for either side will not be forgiven or forgotten for years to come. Indeed, the social tensions in Venezuela will not easily fade, whichever side emerges victorious in the short run.