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Venezuela: Opposition "strike" or bosses lock out? - An eyewitness account

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If we were to believe the information we get from the mass media internationally, we would get the impression that in Venezuela there has been a general strike for the last one and a half months and that president Chavez is an extremely unpopular and authoritarian ruler who is about to be overthrown in a mass popular revolt. Nothing could be further from the truth. The working class of Venezuela is not taking part in any general strike. What is taking place is a bosses' lock out.

If we were to believe the information we get from the mass media internationally, we would get the impression that in Venezuela there has been a general strike for the last one and a half months and that president Chavez is an extremely unpopular and authoritarian ruler who is about to be overthrown in a mass popular revolt. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the "national civic strike" called by the opposition on December 2, demanding Chavez's resignation and early elections has been a complete failure since the beginning. When I arrived in Caracas on December 11, the airport was working normally, as well as public transport (buses, coaches and the Caracas Metro), shopping centres, restaurants and bars. The basic industries (iron, steel, aluminium, etc), which are state-owned, were working at 100% capacity because of the decision of the workers and their unions to oppose the 'strike'.

In the state of Carabobo, one of the most important centres of manufacturing industry, the 'Class Struggle' and 'Democratic Trade Union Block', which brings together workers from 52 different unions in the most important factories in the state (including Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Pirelli, Good Year, Firestone, MAVESA, and others) declared its opposition to the 'strike'. Some of these factories remained open but in others the workers went to work and found themselves locked out by the bosses. They demanded to be paid their wages, since they had gone to work, and in most cases they were paid. The same was true in some sections of the food and beverages industry, which is controlled, almost in its entirety by Grupo Polar, which is owned by the powerful businessman and opposition leader Mendoza.

This is not a strike at all, but a bosses' lock out. The fact that this protest has the support of the executive committee of the CTV, the main trade union federation in the country, should not fool anyone, since this Executive Committee has never actually been elected. The people who sit on it appointed themselves before the end of the ballot in the extremely irregular elections of November 2001. This explains why it is not recognised by most of the federations and local union branches.

The only part of the economy that was seriously hit by the opposition protest was the oil industry. Here, a small group of managers, directors, supervisors and technicians organised the sabotage of production and brought the industry almost to a halt. Oil production is highly computerised and a few managers withdrawing their keys and passwords can cause a lot of damage. They also made sure they fixed the administrative procedures so that they would still receive their (very high) salaries while they were on 'strike'. Also a number of captains and crew of some of the oil tankers mutinied and prevented normal deliveries. It is important to note that the oil workers' union leaders, who in April had supported the opposition-led attempted coup, this time did not even dare make a public statement in favour of the 'national strike'. Slowly but surely, oil workers took over the refineries and oil fields and started to get the industry back to normal. By January 10, the state-owned oil company PDVSA was working at 50% of capacity.

The opposition protest has been accompanied by a campaign of lies, half-truths and the blatant manipulation of all the private media, particularly the TV stations, which are also controlled by the opposition. All TV stations suspended their normal programming to broadcast only 'news' about the success of the 'strike' and gave all their commercial breaks over to opposition propaganda. To give just one example of the level of hysteria which the opposition and the media are trying to whip up against the government, when the government finally got a court order to take over the oil tankers that had mutinied, the opposition claimed that the new crews were Cuban, and that this was a further sign that the country was rapidly moving towards "Castro-Communism". This lie was repeated by the media, until a couple of days later, having been directly challenged by the Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister, the opposition leaders were forced to retract their allegations and admit that there were no Cubans working in the oil tankers.

At the beginning of January, the opposition, faced with the failure of their actions to bring the country to a halt, decided to up the stakes by announcing the closure of the banks and that schools and universities would not re-open after the Christmas break. Again, both actions failed. Most banks remained open and those that did close only did so for 48 hours. In most schools around the country the alliance of parents, teachers and students guaranteed the opening of the schools and colleges, in some cases against the will of the headmasters.

As for Chavez being an unpopular dictator, nothing could be further from the truth. The opposition has been regularly calling demonstrations against the government demanding his resignation, and they can manage to mobilise 100,000, 200,000 or even 300,000 people onto the streets, mainly from the rich and middle class areas of Caracas. What is not generally reported is that the Bolivarians, as the supporters of the revolutionary process call themselves, can get far bigger crowds onto the streets. On December 7, right at the beginning of the opposition protest, a massive demonstration of more than 2 million people took to the streets of Caracas against the 'strike' to defend the democratically elected government.

In fact, the result of the opposition 'strike' has been to further polarise society and to push many people who had not taken sides to openly declare themselves against the opposition, which they rightly see as being responsible for the fuel and food shortages. There have been many instances in which people, queuing for hours to get petrol, have expelled opposition supporters from the petrol station queues for having the audacity to try to blame the government for the shortages.

Chavez is most definitely not a dictator. It is in fact his supporters who are demanding that the government take stronger action against the opposition, which is hell bent on overthrowing a democratically elected government. The only people who are currently in prison as a result of the opposition coup on April 11 of last year are actually government supporters who were defending the presidential palace against the coup! Pedro Carmona, who appointed himself president for a few hours following the coup, was put under house arrest for a few days and later escaped to Colombia. The opposition newspapers (all of them apart from two or three exceptions) carry numerous articles and editorials openly calling for a military coup to remove Chavez and appealing to the armed forces to overthrow the government, and no measures are taken against them! There is a group of military officers who have declared themselves in rebellion against the government and instead of being arrested they have been allowed to set up a permanent camp in Plaza Francia, a square in the centre of Caracas (mind you, these "courageous" individuals leave their "permanent" camp at night to go to sleep in luxury hotels!).

Chavez and his government have been put to the test in seven different elections since he was elected in 1998 and they have won every single one of them. Furthermore, the country's new Bolivarian Constitution allows for all elected public officials to be subject to a recall referendum half-way through their term of office. This includes the president who is up for such a referendum in August 2003. The problem is that the opposition is convinced they would lose such a referendum and that is why they are demanding Chavez's resignation. What they did not achieve in April by means of a military coup, they want to achieve now by a combination of economic sabotage, chaos, appeals to the armed forces and international pressure.

The reason why the local oligarchy and US imperialism are opposed to Chavez is that even his limited programme of bourgeois democratic reforms (land reform, maintenance of PDVSA as a state-owned company and the extension of political democracy amongst others) and the process of mass mobilisation and organisation which they have generated, directly clash with the class interests of the capitalists. But the very actions of the reactionary forces are pushing the masses to take direct action and push forward their revolutionary cause. On January 10, for instance, 400 workers at COVENCAUCHO (a tyre company in the state of Lara) decided to take over the factory and declared themselves on "strike against the strike", when they were told that the company had decided to join the opposition protest. The oil workers in one of the oil refineries had been running the installations under workers' control throughout Christmas and New Year. When a new manager was appointed by the government to replace the old one who had joined the opposition protest, he was told by the workers that he was welcome to join them, but that the refinery was now under workers' management. Also, on January 17, the National Guard with the support of the workers and the local population took over a Panamco beverages warehouse in Carabobo belonging to the powerful businessman and oppositionist Cisneros, and the general in charge of this operation justified his actions by saying that collective rights came before private rights. All these are some indications of the deepening of the process of the Venezuelan revolution.

The main discussions that are taking place in the trade union and popular movement at the present time are about popular control of the mass media, workers' control and management of the state-owned companies, occupation of privately owned factories, popular management of schools, nationalisation of the banks, etc. Through their own experience, the workers, the poor peasants and the students are drawing the conclusion that the revolutionary process, in order to be defended, must be strengthened and deepened.

The most urgent task for revolutionaries in Venezuela is the building of a conscious Marxist leadership that can help the movement draw the necessary conclusions and that is that the revolutionary process must adopt a clear socialist and international approach as the only way to guarantee its final victory.

Jorge Martin
secretary, Hands Off Venezuela Campaign

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