Coup de Petrol in Venezuela

Caracas. Exactly one year after the opposition’s first “general strike,” on December 10, 2001, which launched the campaign to oust the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, the opposition is engaged in its fourth “general strike” and has come very close to finally achieving its goal. The fourth employer-sponsored general strike, which began on December 2, seemed to have a strong start, as traffic resembled a Sunday and many stores and practically all private schools throughout the country were closed that day. However, by the second day it was clear that the strike would not last. Still, the opposition continued to extend the strike for an additional day every day, each time finding new reasons to continue the strike, even though it was clear that the strike had very little ongoing support beyond a few large businesses, such as McDonald’s and other fast food chains, the supermarkets, and the private schools. The opposition, which consists of the main Chamber of Commerce Fedecameras, the union federation CTV, the coalition of opposition parties and organizations gathered under the “Coordinadora Democratica,” and the private mass media kept claiming that the strike was a resounding success nonetheless.

The opposition’s fortunes turned, however, when it pulled its trump card on the fourth day of the strike: the managers and administrative workers of Venezuela’s oil company, PDVSA. Following a suspicious break-in at a manager’s home and the government’s raid of a tanker captain’s home, managers and other white-collar workers of PDVSA staged a protest in front of the oil company’s headquarters. The National Guard immediately broke-up this strike with tear gas and plastic bullets because the headquarters had several months earlier been declared a “security zone” and off limits to demonstrations, since it is of vital economic interest to the country. Despite PDVSA’s president’s continuous efforts to negotiate with dissident managers, these decided that it was time for them to join the strike, given the recent events. The management and white-collar worker strike, however, did not gain much momentum until tanker captains and dock workers joined it.

The opposition received an additional and tremendous boost when the opposition’s leaders and the media took advantage of a terrible tragedy, in which a gunman opened fire on a peaceful opposition rally and killed three and wounded about 30 others. Opposition leaders immediately argued that the government was responsible for this atrocity. For the next two days the media continuously repeated the images of the chaos and confusion and of the dead and wounded that were recorded immediately after the shooting. The gunman was apprehended at the scene of the crime and within two hours of the shooting, amateur video footage surfaced that supposedly showed the gunman in the presence of pro-Chavez mayor Freddy Bernal a day earlier.

Investigators of the crime, however, have said that there is proof that the gunman, Joao de Goveia, a Portuguese national, entered Venezuela from Portugal the day before the shooting, but well after the footage of the amateur video was taped. In other words, either the video image is not of de Gouveia or the video might have been faked, which would not have been too difficult, since the image is very grainy and dark because it was filmed in the middle of the night. Apparently, de Goveia was living and working in Venezuela, but had been abroad for a while, just before the shooting.

As is usual in such high profile cases, the truth will probably never be known beyond a reasonable doubt, since there are too many interests at stake and too many people willing and in the position to forge evidence or testimony. Still, there can be little doubt that this attack was of absolutely no benefit to the government, since it rekindled a strike that was faltering. As a result, it provided a big boost to the opposition’s campaign to oust President Chavez.

Opposition leaders’ taking advantage of the attack and the relentless media campaign of the five private television stations and eight or so major newspapers, which consistently present only one perspective for interpreting all events that take place in Venezuela, upset many pro-Chavez Venezuelans even more with the media than they had already been. On the eighth day of the strike, “Chavistas” surrounded the headquarters of all of the major television stations in the capital and of several in the rest of the country, staging loud pot-banging “cacerolazos.” (The opposition had already pioneered such protests on a regular basis at the building of the state-run television channel, ever since the two-day coup in April, but this never received any media attention, not even from the affected station.) After a couple hours of pot-banging, the demonstrators withdrew, at the behest of pro-Chavez legislators and OAS general secretary Cesar Gaviria. To the media, these protests were additional proof that Venezuela is a totalitarian country, of which Chavez is the dictator. Journalists argued that their lives were threatened, even though it was quite clear that these were peaceful protests. Still, the director of one TV channel even went so far as to argue that the protests constituted “genocide.” One unoccupied station outside of Caracas did get looted, for which Chavistas blamed radical elements of the opposition, since witnesses say that there were no protests at that station that night.

Once again, these protests provided the ammunition the opposition needed to justify he continuation of the strike. While the strike has been relatively ineffective in the general population and especially among the poor, it has had its most devastating effect in the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. With the complete shut-down of Venezuela’s main oil refinery, which is also one of the largest in the world, the walk-out of key dock workers, and the anchoring of tankers off of Venezuela’s main ports, the supply of oil has been halved, from 3 million barrels per day (bpd) to 1.5 million bpd. Meanwhile, PDVSA’s president, Ali Rodriguez, announced that a continued stoppage of oil production and shipments would seriously harm the Venezuelan economy, which is losing around $50 million per day as a result of the strike. Also, nearly all of Venezuela’s economic activity depends in one way or another on the steady supply of oil from its own refineries, such as gasoline for the transportation food to cities or of supplies to factories, for the filling of airplanes that land in Venezuela with jet fuel, or for the generation of electricity. Rodriguez also warned that Venezuela would lose international oil customers and could default on debt payments, if oil production was not restarted soon. So far the restriction of oil supplies has had most of its impact on the lack of gasoline at many gas stations, especially in the country’s interior, leading to long lines at gas stations throughout the country, due to consumer fears that their local gas station would soon run out of gasoline.

As of this writing (Dec. 16), the government claims that it has by and large managed to regain control over the oil production and shipping process, with the help of the military, so that oil supply should be back to normal within a few days. The opposition, however, denies this and warns that serious industrial accidents could result because unqualified personnel are taking control of the installations.

Both the opposition and the government are keeping up their efforts to mobilize their supporters through large mobilizations. On December 7 the government organized a large demonstration at the presidential palace, which attracted several hundred thousand supporters, at which Chavez promised that just as he had defeated the opposition in the seven elections of 1998 to 2001, he would defeat them again in the current confrontation. The opposition, for its part, organized a massive demonstration of its own, also attracting hundreds of thousands of its supporters, on December 14th. These demonstrations proved, once again, that both the government and the opposition enjoy widespread popular support. Of course, the private media in Venezuela does not reflect this and covers only opposition demonstrations, leaving the impression to non-participating observers that only the opposition has popular support.

It would seem that where the opposition’s efforts to oust Chavez via a non-stop media campaign, large demonstrations, a coup, and four “general” strikes have largely failed, the management take-over, or coup, of the oil company might succeed. The scenarios for doing so are still murky, though. Many among the more radical elements of the opposition, to which the main actors behind the “general strike” belong, such as Fedecameras President Carlos Fernandez, CTV President Carlos Ortega, and Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, seem to be hoping for another military coup attempt. These three continuously issue calls to the military to “abide by their mission,” to “defend the constitution,” and to avert Venezuela’s “castro-communist dictatorship.” The more moderate elements of the opposition, such as CTV general secretary Manuel Cova and NGO-leader Elias Santana of “Queremos Elegir,” seem to placing their bets on a negotiated settlement for early elections. However, the OAS-mediated negotiations have so far stalled and it is far from certain that they will reach any kind of agreement before Christmas. What is for sure, however, is that the opposition and a significant number of Venezuela’s businesses prefer to commit economic suicide, in its efforts to oust Chavez, and to drag the country down with it.

GREGORY WILPERT is a sociologist and freelance journalist living in Venezuela. He is currently working on a book on the Chavez presidency, which will be published by Zed Books in 2003. He can be reached at:


Gregory Wilpert is a former director of the teleSUR English website and author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government.