The US government is not a single-issue organization. While huge attention is now being paid to preparing the ground for America’s occupation of Iraq, another arm of the administration is engaged, with a lower profile, in pursuing Washington’s interests in Venezuela, the South American country that is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, which supplies a substantial proportion of the American petroleum market, and which is ruled by a popular left-wing government under Hugo Chavez.
Chavez has angered Washington by his relations with Cuba, and his condemnation of last year’s war on Afghanistan, even though he has largely accepted the IMF’s prescription for Venezuela’s economy and policies.
In April, Chavez survived a coup attempt that was blatantly organized, co-ordinated and endorsed from the White House. Less than a year later there are increasing signs that another attempt to topple Chavez may be in the offing. This time the strategy seems to be to force him to resign or, failing that, to create the conditions in which another attempted military seizure of power might succeed.
On December 2 the country was shut down by a “strike” called not by the workers, but by the country’s employers. The strike—or employers’ lock-out—is jointly organized by the country’s biggest business association, FEDECAMARAS, and the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, which is not a trade union, but a right-wing organization financed by the National Endowment for Democracy, a US agency regarded as a front for the CIA. It is also supported by the management of the state energy company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
Although the strike has been called by Venezuela’s powerful elite, and is being run from a plaza in the wealthy Altamira section of Caracus, the impact of an 11-day shut-down has been massive on all sections of the population, 80 percent of whom live in poverty. Petrol stations have run out of fuel and food supplies have become scarce in supermarkets. The opposition’s official demand is for elections in February, even though the constitution allows for a referendum to be held in the summer. Observers believe their real object is to create a situation in which it is impossible for Chavez to remain in office until the summer, and he is forced to step down to prevent further suffering in the country.
In an incident reminiscent of the run-up to April’s coup attempt, three strike supporters were killed and 28 injured on December 6, when unidentified gunmen fired into a pro-strike demonstration. Opposition leaders immediately blamed Chavez for the attack. In April the killing of 18 anti-government demonstrators by unknown gunmen provided the trigger and the justification for the launching of the coup attempt on a date that had previously been agreed in Washington (see Crescent International, May 1-15, 2002).
Immediately after this month’s incident, General Enrique Medina Gomez, a dissident officer who was dismissed after the April coup, called for the military to overthrow Chavez “like we did on April 11”. It later emerged that one of the gunmen, who was arrested at the scene, was claiming to have been paid for the attack by Medina Gomez. Another man filmed firing into the crowd had also been caught on film talking to another prominent opposition leader earlier the same day.
Venezuela’s elites have been angered by a number of Chavez policies designed to help the country’s poorest people by reducing the elite’s grip on the country’s resources. These include land-reform and the re-organization of the PDVSA, which many Venezuelans regard as a corrupt cash-cow for the elite. The PDVSA has effectively been shut down by its own managers, although its workers have ignored the strike call. Chavez has threatened to use the military to open the refineries to the workers and ensure distribution of oil, which accounts for 80 percent of the country’s foreign earnings.
Having created the chaos in the first place, the elites are now blaming it on Chavez and attacking him for the problems they themselves have created for the country. The atmosphere of provocations and employer-organized economic sabotage is reminiscent of earlier CIA-sponsored campaigns to undermine popular left-wing government in Latin American countries, particularly the CIA’s campaign to destabilize the Popular Unity Government of president Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973, paving the way for the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet.
These attempts to undermine Chavez are continuing despite attempts by Chavez to accommodate himself to Washington since the coup attempt in April. He has toned down his nationalist and populist rhetoric, and recently made a public declaration that Venezuela will remain a “reliable” oil supplier to the US if war in the Middle East disrupts supplies from elsewhere.
It appears, however, that even Chavez’s watered-down version of left-wing populism is too much for both the US and for Venezuela’s own capitalist elites. After the coup attempt, it emerged that senior Bush aides, including White House adviser Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state Otto Reich and John Negroponte, the US ambassador to the US, had all held regular meetings with the coup leaders in the months before it took place. All were closely involved in the US’s war against popular left-wing governments in Latin America during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s.
Just as history seems to be repeating itself in the Middle East because George W. Bush is following his father’s policies against Iraq, so too it seems to be repeating in Latin America. Elsewhere, Latin Americans eventually accepted the inevitable and decided that it was worth accepting rightwing parties just to get America off their backs; it remains to be seen whether Venezuelans will be forced to the same decision. It is very likely that eventually they will; their not-so-very-avuncular Uncle Sam will leave them no choice.