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Both sides bet on chaos
Andrés Cañizález
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Both the government and the opposition dig in, while the country heads for political and economic collapse.

Venezuelans will remember Christmas 2002 as the most difficult one in generations. On Dec. 2, an indefinite "civic strike" was declared by the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV), the country’s largest union, and the Federation of Chambers and Associations of Commerce and Production (FEDECAMARAS), as well as by opposition political parties and civil society organizations calling themselves the Democratic Coordinating Group.

When the strike was in its second week and appeared to be winding down, the opposition received a boost as top executives and most of the administrative staff of the largest state-owned business, Petroleum of Venezuela SA (PDVSA), joined the work stoppage. On Jan. 9 and 10, the Federation of Bank Employees also walked off the job.

Opponents ignored President Hugo Chávez’s call for a Christmas truce, and shortages of gasoline, cooking gas, food and other products complicated life for ordinary Venezuelans (LP, Dec. 30, 2002).

"PDVSA saved the presidents of the CTV and FEDECAMARAS, turning a lackluster civic strike into an obligatory work stoppage by cutting off the supply of gasoline and cooking gas," said sociologist Ignacio Avalos, who served as minister of science and technology under former President Rafael Caldera (1994-99). He called the opposition measure "illogical," because it aims to "fight the government by tightening the noose on ordinary Venezuelans."

Avalos also criticized Chávez, saying that both sides in the political battle have exacerbated the standoff. The result is "chaos that both the government and the opposition think will work in their favor," he said. "But the only thing that’s certain is that the country will have to pay the price, which is immeasurable by now."

A European diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed, saying, "The leaders of these groups are prepared to destroy the country to achieve their goals, which are to take power or overthrow their opponents. Venezuela is suffering the most difficult moment in its history, and 2003 will be particularly harsh, because there will be an enormous shrinkage of the economy."

As both sides took harder lines, the government rescinded the contracts of hundreds of PDVSA executives and other long-time employees, whom officials called "traitors and saboteurs" because they allegedly took actions that escalated the strike and harmed the industry. The government announced a restructuring of PDVSA on Jan. 7, and more layoffs could follow at the company, which employs 40,000 people.

Since the strike began, petroleum production — which usually accounts for 75 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue and 40 percent of gross domestic product — dropped from 2.8 million barrels a day to an average of 600,000. The sudden drop has sent shockwaves throughout the economy. Government officials warned that they lacked the funds to pay public employees’ salaries this month, and on Jan. 6, Finance Minister Tobías Nóbrega announced that the strike could result in a 10-percent cut in this year’s budget, which had been set at US$30 billion. One British specialist said it could take PDVSA three to six months to return to pre-strike production levels.

The political polarization has underscored the need for a solution that would include a broader cross-section of Venezuelan society.

"The government and the political forces supporting it see these events as just another coup attempt by the enemies of Hugo Chávez’s democratic transformations," said the Rev. Arturo Sosa, provincial superior of the Jesuits and a political analyst.

The Democratic Coordinating Group, meanwhile, accuses Chávez of "imposing a leftist revolution that is rejected by the majority of the people," adding that "the government is prepared to use violence to silence dissidents."

Sosa believes that the latest events are the outcome of last April’s frustrated coup attempt (LP, April 22, 2002). "Venezuelan society is still on a tightrope between two scenarios: a solution that would respect the country’s institutions and a dictatorial transition," he said.

Opinion polls show that most Venezuelans hope for a political solution to the crisis. Most observers say that such an outcome would depend on the success of negotiations sponsored by the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the US-based Carter Center and headed by OAS Secretary General César Gaviria, former president of Colombia. Gaviria has been in Venezuela since Nov. 9 on a diplomatic mission unprecedented in OAS history (LP, Nov. 4, 2002). There have been few results, however, and Gaviria has said the two sides show little willingness to reach an agreement.

Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the daily Tal Cual, who served as Caldera’s minister of planning, said the country is caught in a web of destruction. "The government — and Chávez’s speeches show this clearly — has no choice but to defeat the strike. That is its absolute priority. Meanwhile, the opposition, represented by the Democratic Coordinating Group, is aiming for the government’s unconditional surrender," he said.

The crisis has been marked by street protests and violence, and demonstrators on both sides have been killed. "Both groups see the confrontation as a tournament that will only end when one of the parties imposes its will on the other by force," Petkoff said. Neither side is willing to accept the other’s political importance or admit that they must work together to break the stalemate.

"It would be very difficult for the government alone to find a solution to the crisis and overcome the problems of governance that it faces. Nor could the opposition do so alone, even if it found a way to hold a consultative referendum or some other type of election," Gaviria said.

"This will be the most difficult year of the last 100 in Venezuela’s history. We’re facing unprecedented challenges," said the Rev. Luis Ugalde, a Jesuit historian and rector of the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas. The political, social and economic crisis wracking the country "is greater than any challenge that Venezuelan society has ever faced," he said.

According to Ugalde, the problem is not just the policies of Chávez, who took office in 1999 (LP, March 15, 1999), but the country’s long history of poverty. The only way out, he said, is "a solution that is democratic, negotiated and constitutional, and which does not exclude any social group."



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