Friday January 17, 2003
The extraordinary and unprecedented events in Venezuela in recent weeks that have sent the world oil price soaring (though controlled this week by an Opec decision to permit a small increase in production) appear to be concluding with President Hugo Chavez ever more firmly in the saddle.
When the conservative opposition to his radical government embarked on a nationwide and open-ended strike at the beginning of December, accompanied by the almost daily mobilisation of its supporters in the streets of Caracas and other major towns, the purpose was to bring about the president's downfall, through resignation or military coup d'etat. Yet although this strategy has done immense damage to the economy, almost bringing the all-important oil industry to a halt, Chavez has never shown the slightest sign of giving in.
Since the new year, he has been fighting back with vigour, leaving a divided and leaderless opposition - who never expected their strike to last beyond Christmas - with an uncertain future. Chavez is a popular and democratically elected president, and he is firmly backed by the armed forces. A former army officer himself, he has an intimate knowledge of the institution, and he is well aware that the opposition's attempt to cripple the nationalised oil industry - the icon of the country's nationalists - has not been popular with the soldiers.
He has now been given carte blanche to crush the strike, and has stepped up his rhetoric accordingly. The period of dialogue and conciliation, embarked on after an unsuccessful coup attempt last April, is over. More than a thousand strikers in the oil industry have been sacked (mostly those in the managerial class); the army has been brought in to guard installations, ports and pipelines; the company itself has been reorganised and split into two regional entities; and the street demonstrations - for and against - are now being tightly controlled by the national guard.
Last weekend, a newly confident Chavez announced that he would send in the troops to stop the hoarding of food, and to keep schools and banks open. He has threatened to revoke the licences of four private television channels that have been campaigning for his overthrow. An upbeat oil minister claims that oil production should be nearly back to normal within a month.
This change of mood in Venezuela is a reflection of a change that is sweeping Latin America, coupled with an atmosphere of uncertainty in Washington, whose chief strategists have preoccupations elsewhere. The election of leftwing presidents in Brazil and Ecuador provides a beacon of hope for Chavez, if not necessarily a lifeline. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was inaugurated in Brasilia on New Year's Day, and Lucio Rodriguez (another progressive former colonel) took office this week. The gathering of Latin American presidents in Ecuador for this ceremony has seen the formation of a group of "friends of Venezuela", designed, through the good offices of the Organisation of American States, to find a peaceful solution to the Venezuelan crisis.
Meanwhile, the trumpet in Washington sounds with an unsure tone. The departure of Otto Reich, who failed to secure the support of Congress for his appointment as the government's chief Latin American operative, was a blow to the neo-conservatives in government, as is the resignation of Mexico's pro-American foreign minister Jorge Castaneda. Democrats in Congress are also making themselves heard - a group of them came out this month with a message of support for Chavez.
Chavez, to the dismay of the opposition, is now embarked upon a radicalisation of what he has always perceived as "a revolution". The country's poor majority is mobilised behind him in a way that was unimaginable a year ago. When schools joined the strike last week, parents and pupils in the poorer shanty towns organised to keep them open. Banks, newspapers and television channels now live under threat of expropriation.
The opposition, caught on the back foot, is still a formidable force. It consists of a bizarre assortment of discredited politicians and trade unionists from the ancien regime, oil executives from the nationalised oil company, important business interests, media magnates and large swaths of a middle class with its feet in Venezuela and its head in the suburban culture of the US.
Much of this middle class has been led by the media and opinion polls, and by the large size of its protest demonstrations, into believing that it forms the majority of the country, and is justified in demanding the president's resignation. Yet demonstrations are a notoriously inadequate guide to voting intentions in Latin America, and opinion polls in third world countries rarely reflect the views of the shanty towns.
By conjuring up the country's forgotten underclass, the poor and the hitherto politically invisible, Chavez has unleashed forces that will be difficult for him, or an alternative government, to put back into the bottle.
· Richard Gott is the author of In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela (Verso)