Having been defeated twice by the revolutionary mobilisation of the masses after their coup in April 2002 and the during their sabotage of the oil industry in December 2002, the reactionary forces in Venezuela are now trying to reorganise their forces in a renewed attempt to overthrow democratically elected president Chavez.
In the last days of the November they organised a four-day collection of signatures to try to force a recall referendum against Chavez. During those days there were already many allegations of fraud and foul play. Many workers in private industry denounced threats of losing their jobs if they did not go to sign for the opposition. Despite the fact that signatures had to be collected in officially recognised places where the exercise could be monitored by Chavez supporters and international observers, the rules also allowed for itinerant signature collection sheets. This was also abused by the opposition, and many instances of signature sheets being taken into hospitals and psychiatric institutions were denounced. Despicably, patients were being asked to sign in order to receive medical treatment. There were also cases denounced in which people had been bussed from one electoral district to another so that they could sign twice.
Despite all this trickery it was clear for all to see that the opposition had not been able to mobilise the middle class in decisive numbers. The masses of the petty bourgeoisie in Caracas which had provided the cannon fodder for previous opposition attempts at overthrowing Chavez, had had enough of the opposition leaders, and are now divided and bickering amongst themselves. There were only sizeable queues on the first day of the signature collection, after that signing places looked empty, deserted and many were closed after the second day.
The opposition needed to collect at least 2.4 million signatures to force the recall of president Chavez. At the end of the four-day period they announced that the had gathered 3.8 million, but this figure was quickly rebutted by one of the main opposition leaders, Carabobo state governor Salas- Rohmer who said they had collected 2.8 million. The significant fact was that there was no joy in the faces of opposition leaders as they announced their “victory”. After that it took them nearly 20 days to hand over the boxes with signatures to the National Electoral Commission (CNE) for them to be counted and certified. The delay became so farcical that even Salas-Rohmer urged the other opposition leaders to hand them over immediately or risk losing any credibility they might have had left. This was after some of them announced they would not hand them to the CNE, but rather to representatives of the Organisation of American States!
Finally, when signatures were handed to the CNE, there “were” only 3.4 million, that is nearly half a million had “disappeared” between the end of the collection period and the handing in. Along with this, opposition leaders recognised that there might be a 10% margin of error in their figures.
To make things worse the tape of a phone conversation between a prominent oppositionist and his father in Paris was made public. In it they admitted openly to only having collected 1.9 million signatures. They have now recognised the veracity of the tape, but are still taking a journalist to court for having divulged the details in his newspaper column and his TV programme. This would be funny if it weren’t so scandalous. The opposition leader involved was seen during the coup on April 11, 2002, on live TV demanding opposition mobs to arrest Tachira state governor by force and has never been charged. Meanwhile, the journalist, Villegas, only repeated information which had been available for weeks on the revolutionary website Aporrea.org
Since December, increasing evidence of fraud and invalid signature sheets has emerged. Thousands of signatures seem to have been filled in with the same handwriting and these sheets have either been declared invalid or set aside for further investigation. Nearly half of all sheets have been contested for one reason or another.
Despite this farcical process, the opposition still insists they collected the signatures and is putting the CNE under pressure to recognise them. This campaign of international, diplomatic and media pressure reached its peak last weekend when the opposition called for a demonstration outside the CNE on February 14th. This was clearly a provocation, since the CNE building is located in Caracas Square, a traditional gathering point for Chavez supporters, and the building up to the demonstration was full of rumours of a coup attempt, a terrorist attempt on Chavez’s life, and hard core opposition supporters went out and set up illegal road blocks in Caracas on Thursday, February 12. Rumours of this kind are always spread in order to increase the climate of social tension and try to actually provoke an intervention of the Army tops against Chavez. However, in the short run a coup is unlikely since the forces of counter-revolution have been greatly weakened within the army, not because military officers which participated in the previous attempts have been tried and jailed, but rather because they declared themselves in rebellion and therefore put themselves outside of the army. However it is precisely in these conditions in which reactionary forces feel isolated and weak that they may attempt desperate measures and terrorist attacks.
Thousands of people from the revolutionary movement gathered in the centre of Caracas to counter the opposition demonstration. Finally, the opposition demonstration was a flop, only gathering a few thousand (20.000 according to international media, see pics here: nowhere near the hundreds of thousands they could gather one year ago during the bosses lock out and sabotage of the oil industry. Just a few weeks earlier the revolutionaries had gathered between half a million and one million people during the anniversaries of January 23 (the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1958), and February 2 (when Chavez was sworn as president in 1999).
This reflects the current balance of forces amongst the masses. The massive social plans undertaken by the government in the last year have strengthened the social basis of support for the Bolivarian revolutionary process amongst the masses. Nearly 1 million people have been lifted from illiteracy, hundreds of thousands have had access to primary health care for the first time, and 3 million hectares of land have been distributed to landless peasants organised in peasant co-ops.
However the economic situation is still extremely difficult. The final balance for 2003 was a fall in GPD of 18%, largely because of the opposition organised oil industry sabotage and lock out of December 2002 and January 2003. It is true that the economy is forecast to grow again this year, mainly as a result of high oil prices. Nevertheless the sabotage of the economy by the banks and private companies continues. There is a danger of a feeling of overconfidence on the part of the people’s and workers’ movement, of thinking that because reaction is weak and has been defeated by the masses on a number of occasions, all is solved. On the contrary, the capitalists and imperialism have shown once and again that they are committed to overthrowing Chavez’s government and putting and end to the revolutionary movement unleashed around the Bolivarian movement.
The latest provocation from US imperialism came this week with the visit of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Peter DeShazo. After meeting with opposition leaders, he declared there were “too many technicalities” in the process of verification of signatures. He also declared that it was as important for the United States as the final decision of the National Electoral Council, the opinion of the Organisation of American States and Carter Centre observers. This is yet a further attempt to pressurise the NEC to recognise the signatures which came after evidence has been uncovered that the opposition organisation which organised the signature collection effort, SUMATE, has received funding from the US National Endowment for Democracy, together with a whole host of other opposition organisations (details can be found on the website www.venezuelafoia.info/ )
Mass popular support for the revolutionary process and the weakness of the opposition should be used to further social transformation. If bankers and capitalists sabotage the economy and finance undemocratic attempts to overthrow the democratically elected government, they must be nationalised and put under workers control. Already in the struggle against the oil industry sabotage the oil workers showed the way forward by occupying and running under workers control PDVSA, the country’s largest company. To defeat the reaction, it is necessary to place the key sections of the economy under the democratic control of the workers, replacing the permanent army with a popular militia, and replacing the administrative apparatus of the state (full of reactionaries sabotaging the democratic will of the people) by a genuine workers democracy. This is the only way to smash reaction once and for all. A successful socialist revolution in Venezuela would have a massive impact throughout the continent and beyond.