Close your eyes and imagine a country that supplies a major portion of the United State’s imported oil. Imagine a country historically dominated by American corporate interests. Imagine that this country’s government is considered “too left wing” by powerful forces in the United States. Imagine this country’s media is overwhelmingly conservative and pro-American.
Envision what might happen. Now open your eyes to the reality of Venezuela. Yes, Canadians have good reason to be concerned about recent events in that South American country. Only seven months after a military coup, Venezuela is again descending into social chaos. For the past 10 days the country has been gripped by a general strike, the fourth of the year, supported by both major business and the elite trade union federations. Though the strike seems to be withering, in the key oil industry disruption continues. Talk of armed gatherings by both the opposition and pro-government forces is rife. Military intervention and civil war are a possibility. Today’s turmoil stretches back to before April 11 when President Hugo Chavez was ousted and returned to office within 48 hours. His return was due to a split within the army and massive popular support. That coup was led by then leader of the country’s main business group Fedecámaras. Today, in a similar situation the anti-government opposition forces are calling on Chavez to resign.
While Chavez has important enemies his supporters are many and committed. Chavez was elected in 1998 and again in 2000 with 58% of the vote. His victory broke a 50-year-old two-party stranglehold on the reins of power. Chavez is leading a “Bolivariano revolution”, named after the 19th century independence hero, in a country polarized both on economic and racial lines. Over 80% of the population lives below the poverty line and there is a strong correlation between poverty and dark skin. Chavez, who is of black and indigenous origins, has concentrated on improving the living conditions of the poor.
His policies have included land redistribution for poor farmers, title to the self-built homes of the barrios, steady increases in the minimum wage and of public sector salaries, and the enrollment of over one million previously excluded students in school.
Two years ago Chavez called upon his supporters to organize themselves into Bolivarian Circles, a grassroots network of neighborhood groups designed to shore up the “revolution”. They act as lobbying groups that appeal directly to Chavez for help financing community programs. Money is awarded for almost anything from loan programs to individual medical needs. The circles are concentrated in Caracas’ teeming slums where over 60% of the city’s 5 million people live. Estimates put the number of Bolivariano Circles at over 140,000 across the country. Since each circle has between seven and fifteen members the nation-wide total membership is over one million.
Many critics charge that the circles are little more than intimidation groups. The opposition believes that the government has armed the circles and trained them in neighborhood spying in the manner of Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, although there is little evidence to back those claims.
Chavez has at times been overly dismissive of his critics. He rails against the corrupt oligarchy. As a result he has antagonized large segments of society. Nevertheless, supporters of democracy must concede Chavez’s right to continue in power even if his support has dropped to between 30 and 35 per cent (How many Canadian politicians support has dropped to this level?).
According to the constitution, to remove Chavez, the opposition needs only to wait until August, half way through his term when a binding referendum can be held. But the main demand of the general strike is an earlier non-binding referendum. The American position towards Chavez is unclear. Prior to the April 11 coup, U.S. state department officials met with coup leaders. Similarly, the U.S. was quick to recognize the new government. Recently Chavez has, however, been more conciliatory towards the U.S. Nonetheless, state department officials have been ambiguous about their position.
The Canadian government thus far has also been weak in defending Venezuelan democracy. While after April 1 most Latin American leaders strongly condemned the coup, our government said little. Now Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham is simply asking for both sides to resume dialogue.
Mr. Graham, in the spirit of continental integration, should clearly state Canada’s opposition to any government that gains power un-democratically. Anything less is tacit consent to a return to the bad old days of South American coups and military juntas.
YVES ENGLER is Vice President Communications for the Concordia Student Union and has traveled extensively throughout Venezuela. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org