The land reform law calls for government review of the holdings of wealthy landowners and the expropriation of unproductive or unused land. The expropriated land would be given to landless peasants to till. On the day of the work stoppage, Chávez told a crowd of 7,000 peasants and others in central Caracas that he would rapidly implement the economic laws and start granting land.
The law affecting oil exploration, dubbed the hydrocarbons law, increases royalty taxes on private companies wanting to exploit the country's vast oil reserves, and is vehemently opposed by oil company executives. Venezuela, the fourth largest economy in Latin America, is also the world's fourth largest oil exporter.
Officials of one of the trade union federations, the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation, supported the employers' strike, calling Chávez's government "authoritarian," and alleging a lack of collaboration on the new measures.
But in many working-class neighborhoods, street vendors and shop owners ignored the stoppage called by the big-business federation. "Many said they could not bear to support Fedecámaras," reported the New York Times "Fedecámaras never supported the workers," Manuel Huerta told the paper. "They support the entrepreneurial elite."
Street actions by forces against and in support of the government have risen in the last year. On the day of the work stoppage, Chávez supporters marched to the headquarters of Fede-cámaras to protest the bosses' strike. The Wall Street Journal reported that three days earlier, some 2,000 antigovernment protesters tried to march to the presidential palace and were turned back by a larger crowd of Chávez supporters.
Acute social crisis
Hugo Chávez came to power three years ago in the midst of an acute social crisis in Venezuela. Half the workforce was unemployed or underemployed, 70 percent lived below the official poverty line, and successive regimes had implemented austerity policies to meet the demands of capitalist creditors and fork out interest payments on the country's $32 billion foreign debt.
Chávez presented himself as a strong and uncorrupted leader from outside the establishment, who would take decisive action--unilaterally if necessary--to fix these problems. He took a nationalist stand, evoking the figure of anticolonial hero Simón Bolivar, and presented himself as a defender of the country's patrimony. He promised to improve the lives of workers and peasants, while defending the Venezuelan nation--both capitalist and worker alike. In this context, he came to power with widespread support among workers and peasants.
Supporters of big business have increasingly accused the Chávez government of trying to "Cubanize" the country. Earlier this year, Chávez decreed several measures on education to strengthen the hand of the state to fire teachers and principals, mandate all schools to teach a course on "Bolivarian Ideology," and ban public schools from setting registration fees which were prohibiting thousands from attending school.
These measures, and an exchange program between Cuban and Venezuelan teachers, led Octavio de Lamo, president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Private Education and others to accuse the government of an "endorsement of Cuba's education system and policies." Similar remarks have been made in the big-business press in the United States and Venezuela around the latest economic measures.
The Venezuelan president has also been harshly criticized for building closer relations with several governments labeled "terrorist" by Washington--from Cuba to Iran, Iraq, and Libya.
Chávez's government has progressively strengthened diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba, leading Venezuela to became Cuba's biggest trading partner. Two-way trade doubled since 1999. Under a bilateral agreement signed by the two governments last year, Venezuela supplies Cuba with up to 53,000 barrels of oil a day on favorable terms.
In a December 7 opinion column featured in the Wall Street Journal, Mary O'Grady, editor of the paper's Americas section, expressed the views of many in U.S. ruling circles toward the Chávez government. The article was entitled, "Opposition builds to Castroite tactics of Hugo Chávez."
The Venezuelan president "regularly seiz[es] the airwaves for hours at a time," she wrote, with "Fidelish orations that have often included references to his dream of a Venezuelan collectivist utopia." O'Grady bemoaned the recent measures, saying they will "sharply jack up the cost of private-sector oil exploration and development by enlarging government royalty claims."
Apparently forgetting the history of her own government, including recent measures by the Bush administration, O'Grady condemned Chávez because the new laws were "drafted in secret and decreed through the use of special executive power that the president won last year from the parliament he effectively controls."
O'Grady also pointed to fissures in the army and growing opposition to what she called Chávez's "anti-American, pro-Cuban ranting."
Leading up to the bosses' strike, Fed-ecámaras president Pedro Carmona indicated the desire of large sections of the capitalist class to be rid of the Chávez government. "We cannot accept interventionism and discretion, or attitudes of central planning and total control," he said in a November 28 speech. "We cannot remain silent before the violation of the constitution and the law or the disrespect of private property," the big business representative said.
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