CARACAS. “Where are they getting their money?” asks historian Samuel Moncada, as the television displays one opposition commercial after another. Moncada is chair of the history department at Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. We are sitting in one of the few restaurants that is open in the eastern, wealthier part of Caracas.
For two weeks during this country’s business-led strike, the privately owned stations that dominate Venezuelan television have been running opposition “info-mercials” instead of advertisements, in addition to what is often non-stop coverage of opposition protests.
“I am sure there is money from abroad,” asserts Moncada. It’s a good guess: prior to the coup on April 11, the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy stepped up its funding to opposition groups, including money funneled through the International Republican Institute. The latter’s funding multiplied more than sixfold, to $340,000 in 2001.
But if history is any guide, overt funding from Washington will turn out to be the tip of the iceberg. This was the case in Haiti, Nicaragua, Chile, and other countries where Washington has sought “regime change” because our leaders didn’t agree with the voters’ choice at the polls. (In fact, Washington is currently aiding efforts to oust President Aristide in Haiti — for the second time). In these episodes, which extended into the 1990s, our government concealed amounts up to the hundreds of millions of dollars that paid for such things as death squads, strikes, economic destabilization, electoral campaigns and media.
All this remains to be investigated in this case. But the intentions of the U.S. government are clear. Last week the State Department ordered non- essential embassy personnel to leave the country, and warned American citizens not to travel here. But there have not been attacks on American citizens or companies here, from either side of the political divide, and this is not a particularly dangerous place for Americans to be.
In this situation, the State Department’s extreme measures and warning can only be interpreted as a threat. The Bush Administration has also openly sided with the opposition, demanding early elections here. Then this week Washington changed its position to demanding a referendum on Chavez’s presidency, most likely figuring that a divided opposition could easily lose to Chavez in an election, despite its overwhelming advantage in controlling the major means of communication.
The discussion in the U.S. press, dominated by Washington’s views, has also taken on an Orwellian tone. Chavez is accused of using “dictatorial powers” for sending the military to recover oil tankers seized by striking captains. Bush Administration spokesman Ari Fleischer urged the Venezuelan government “to respect individual rights and fundamental freedoms.”
But what would happen to people who hijacked an oil tanker from Exxon-Mobil in the United States? They would be facing a trial and a long prison sentence. Military officers who stood outside the White House and called for the overthrow of the government (and this just six months after a military coup supported by a foreign power) would end up in Guantanamo facing a secret military tribunal for terrorism.
In fact, the U.S. press would be much more fair if it held the Venezuelan government to the standards of the United States. In the U.S., government workers do not have the right to strike at all, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated when he summarily fired 12,000 air traffic controllers in 1981. But even this analogy is incomplete: the air traffic controllers were striking for better working conditions. Here, the employees of the state-owned oil company — mostly managers and executives — are trying to cripple the economy, which is heavily dependent on oil exports, in order to overthrow the government. In the United States, even private sector workers do not have the legal right to strike for political demands, and certainly not for the president’s resignation.
In the United States, courts would issue injunctions against the strike, the treasuries of participating unions would be seized, and leaders would be arrested.
Meanwhile, outside of the wealthier areas of eastern Caracas, businesses are open and streets are crowded with shoppers. Life appears normal. This is clearly a national strike of the privileged, and most of the country has not joined it.
More than anything right now, this country needs dialogue and a ratcheting down of the tensions and hostilities between the two opposing camps, so as to avoid a civil war. But this dialogue will never happen if the United States continues to pursue a course of increasing confrontation.