Venezuela, Chavez and the Political Vacuum

Against the Current, No. 103, March/April 2003

Francisco T. Sobrino

IN APRIL, 2002 a top army officers’ coup ousted President Hugo Chavez. The coup was preceded by the opposition calling a general strike and an impressive rally in Caracas streets, where some 300,000 demonstrators, mainly from middle classes and posh neighborhoods, marched towards Miraflores, the Government House.

The protest march was generously covered by the domestic TV private channels, and broadcast by CNN to the rest of the world. Unknown snipers shot into the crowd, killing fifteen and injuring some 150. Following this provocative outrage, Chavez was dismissed and then arrested.

Two days later, however, the President was freed and took office again. This dramatic reversal came through popular pressure and mobilizations coming from the shanty towns that encircle Caracas — at least double the oppositionist rally, but mainly ignored by the local TV, and of course by CNN — and thanks also to increasing support from the military, especially middle and low rank officers.

The coalition leading the aborted coup was composed of the traditional right and center parties of Venezuela, the upper classes, the corrupt bureaucracy of the main union federation (CTV), and supported by a big segment of the middle classes wearied by the economic crisis.

The Bush Administration officially approved the coup, but had to retract its words later on, when the subversive movement was promptly defeated.

A Worsening Crisis

Despite his great political success, Chavez could not, or was reluctant to take advantage of it.

Thanks to Chavez’s hesitating policy, Fedecamaras (the chamber of representatives of Venezuelan big bosses), the union bureaucracy, the top echelons of the Catholic Church, the top executives at PDVSA (the big state-owned oil enterprise) and the mass media were encouraged to take again the streets, and again stage a lockout in December 2002, intended to last until they could force Chavez out, be it through a classical coup or along a more “institutional” path.

The union bureaucracy is led by CTV (Venezuelan Workers Confederation) President Carlos Ortega, an old pal of oil companies, who was elected in October 2001 with only 22% of the workers voting. Many workers are disobeying CTV strike orders, but have found their work places closed by their bosses.

Collapsing “Saudi Venezuela”

In order to understand current developments, we should pay attention to Venezuela’s history in the past twenty years or so. As everybody knows, oil is the most important resource of Venezuela, which is the biggest producer and has the largest fuel reserves in Latin America.

Until the late `80s, oil profits were big enough to cushion the sharp contradictions generated in the heart of the Venezuelan social body. In those good old times of oil the boom with its sky-high international prices, an overgrown state was constructed in so-called “Saudi Venezuela.”

Clientelism and corruption were ruling features of the political structure, funded by state redistribution of oil profits. Corruption was not unbearable for the rest of the society, including its poorest portion, inasmuch as they received some important bread crumbs from the state.

This economic and political model collapsed with the plunge in oil prices. In February 1989, President Carlos Rafael Perez dictated new and harsh measures, in tune with the neoliberal agenda and International Monetary Fund recipes, in order to overcome growing economic hardships.

Workers and poor people in the Capital erupted in anger with the “Caracazo,” a massive uprising. Though the uprising was finally suppressed with hundreds killed, the regime would never recover from that shock. In 1992 a failed coup was commanded by Colonel Chavez, who was later imprisoned and in this way began his career in politics.

Turning Point

In December 1998, both AD and COPEI, the most important traditional parties, plunged from a combined 89% (in 1989) to barely 15% at the presidential polls. The winner was — Hugo Chavez. It was clear to everybody that the deepening economic crisis had driven not only most people to poverty and despair, but also political institutions and their leaders to an acute and irreversible deterioration. The Venezuelan people were determined not to allow themselves to be governed in the old way.

In 1999, a sweeping constitutional reform was approved in a referendum. Some important items were incorporated into Venezuela’s Magna Carta, concerning human and democratic rights, and explicitly proclaiming the state ownership of PDVSA, going in this way against the previous government’s plans of privatization.

Chavez was reelected in 2000 under the terms of the new “Bolivarian” constitution (named after Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of half of Latin America). And though the government is accused by the opposition as “castroite-communist,” its moderate economic measures are well received by the have-nots.

The school population has increased by more than 1,000,000 children, and all the pupils freely receive three meals a day at the “Bolivarian” schools. More housing has been built in the past three years than in the 20 preceding years.

Modest financial loans have been granted to small traders, women and workers. New laws on land reform, oil, banking and fisheries were enacted in November 2001, all of which impose modest limits and regulations very like those existing in other capitalist countries, especially in Europe.

Chavist nationalism is to a great extent a rhetorical one. But even that modest rhetoric upsets U.S. imperialism: Chavez has not embraced the “war against terrorism,” is selling oil to Cuba on slightly favorable conditions, and is encouraging a reactivation of OPEC in order to deal oil prices in better conditions.

All these facts are totally unbearable to Bush administration. In addition, some of the new chavista measures have affected old domestic business and bureaucratic sectors, excluding them now from their former sharing of the oil “cake.”

The presidential leftist rhetoric is often combined with a favorable policy towards financial and profiteer sectors, suggesting the configuration of a new hegemonic bloc behind the “Bolivarian” regime.

Until early January, at least, the size and strength of demonstrations showed a sharp polarization, in which both pro-Chavez and opposition forces enjoyed substantial popular support.

The Caracas middle class massively supports the anti-Chavez coalition, for reasons to be found in the economic crisis as well as government policy and the media campaign.

Due to falling oil prices, 2002 was a very hard year in Venezuela: the currency was devalued more than 50%, inflation exceeded 35% and unemployment grew from 13% to 16%.

These economic evils had a worse effect on the middle class than on the poor, since the former tends to buy goods in dollar-linked prices — electronics, cars, U.S. vacations, real estate and so on. Venezuela imports more than 70% of its consumer goods.

Poor people tend to form social informal nets that help to cushion the inflationary impact, and they benefit from free (though precarious) health and education services.

Up to now, government measures and moderate reforms have not very much benefitted the middle class. Nonetheless a new and growing group has appeared: “Clase Media en Positivo,” middle-class supporters of Chavez. These are professionals, teachers, housewives and white-collar workers who do not agree with the opposition and are organizing themselves in assemblies and mobilizing together with chavista organizations.

Obstacle to Privatization

Oil is of course an important ingredient of imperialist interest in Venezuela, which is the United States’ third largest oil supplier. The state company PDVSA is the biggest corporation in Latin America in sales, profits and assets.

The privatization of this true crown jewel is longed for by many in the opposition to Chavez. No wonder that the short-lived rebel government of April 2002 promptly abolished the “Bolivarian” Constitution and the subsequent Oil Law.

Had the oppositionist coup been successful, the Venezuelan economy would have suffered a terrible blow, just as Argentina suffered it when YPF (its state oil company) was privatized under president Carlos Menem.

Venezuela is also an obstacle to the imperialist ambition of imposing FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas), that is, reuniting all the countries of the hemisphere in a common economic zone, with zero customs tariff for American commodities. This initiative would destroy existing domestic industries and would hinder any eventual industrialization of Latin American countries.

If only Brazil and Venezuela were opposed to this measure, there would be no FTAA at all, as both countries together total 42% of Latin American GDP.

Regaining Control

Despite huge economic losses from the confrontation, the Venezuelan government seems to be regaining control in the last few weeks. For some commentators, who are uncritical admirers of the political skills of Chavez, this would account for or justify his reluctance to openly clash with the conspirators’ movement, avoiding resort to the mobilization of the workers and the poorest portion of the society, which support him enthusiastically.

In that way, a triumphant Chavez could offer peaceful negotiations to the moderate wing of the opposition, avoiding harmful long-lasting wounds in the society. We would call such political behavior a bonapartist approach: that is, the tendency to play a role as an arbiter above and between the social classes and factions, without being apparently committed to any of the sides.

In the Venezuelan case, despite Chavez’s fickle relations with Venezuelan masses, this regime depends on its base in the most impoverished sectors of society and in a part of the army, favored by government measures.

Latin America has witnessed in its history many cases of this sort of politics. Nowadays the neoliberal tide is ebbing in the region, but it is not immediately replaced by a truly popular or revolutionary large wave.

New heterogeneous regimes may then emerge filling the vacuum, as a reflection of or reaction to those deep developing social trends. Chavism is just one of these cases.

ATC 103, March-April 2003