The antigovernment demonstrators marched in the streets of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, banging pots and carrying coffins symbolizing the end of the regime. The actions have received the support of officials of the main trade union federation, the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation, which is aligned with the capitalist opposition Democratic Action Party. The same day some 30,000 government supporters--mostly working people--marched in response to the bosses' action.
El Universal, a Venezuelan daily, described the protesters' "main banner" as "the defense of citizens' rights, public freedoms, and the rescue of the fundamental principles of democracy"--allegedly threatened by Chávez's attitude towards the press and other institutions.
The demand by the wealthy capitalists and landowners for Chávez to step down is ultimately aimed at workers and peasants. Wealthy capitalists and landowners have bridled at a land reform law proposed by Chávez. The act allows the government to take over privately owned idle land and hand it to peasants to farm. Another measure opposed by capitalists and the imperialists increases the royalties paid by private-sector oil companies.
Pedro Carmosa Estanga, president of the big-business federation Fedecámaras, said on January 29 that, given the critical political and economic situation in the country, the federation "has decided to declare itself on permanent watch, and is willing to act in a belligerent manner if necessary."
The big-business media has been on a campaign to condemn Chávez for his "authoritarian" government style and his abuse of executive powers, threatening Venezuela's "democratic traditions." The newspaper owners have also blamed the president's "tone of discourse" for inciting attacks against government opponents and the media. At a January 21 rally, the Venezuelan president asked supporters not to attack press reporters, saying that the argument was with the media owners.
Two weeks before, hundreds of demonstrators had surrounded the building of the opposition daily El Nacional, after its editors ran a piece titled, "Dictator without a mask." News articles reported that the demonstrators carried signs saying, "We ask the media to publish the truth" and--in reference to the newspaper owners' campaign--"Why do they lie?"
Washington has backed the anti-Chávez drive and has expressed its uneasiness at the new package of measures directed at the oil companies. A January 12 Financial Times article stated that Washington has abandoned the "concept of responding to Mr. Chávez according to what he does, rather than what he says...and is now trying to figure out how to deal with a 'rogue democracy.'"
Chávez, who led a failed coup in 1992 against the discredited government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, came to power in 1998 in the midst of an acute social crisis. In spite of its status as one of the world's largest oil exporters, half the workforce was unemployed or underemployed, and 70 percent of the country's 21 million people were living below the poverty line.
Chávez won a hearing by claiming to champion the rights of the poor. Using anticorruption demagogy, he presented himself as a strong leader from outside the establishment who would take decisive action to fix these problems.
He promised to bring stability and to improve the lives of workers and peasants, while defending the Venezuelan nation--capitalists and workers alike. He took a nationalist stand, evoking the figure of Simón Bolivar, a Venezuelan national hero and a prominent leader of the anticolonial struggle in Latin America in the early 19th century.
Hard-hit by low world market prices for oil, which accounts for half the government revenue and a third of economic output, the Venezuelan economy registered a 2.7 percent growth last year, well below both government projections and the 3.2 percent growth recorded in 2000. Bank reserves shrank by 25 percent in the year.
The relatively low turnout at the pro-government rally on January 23 parallels opinion polls that show declining support for the Chávez government. The employers are openly encouraging fissures between Chávez and the military.
Following the antigovernment demonstration, Chávez replaced several cabinet members, appointing naval captain Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, one of the officers who participated in his failed 1992 coup, as Interior Minister.
Chávez moved Adina Bastidas from deputy vice president to minister of trade and industry. Expressing the judgment of the capitalist rulers, the Financial Times of London quoted Venezuelan "political analyst" Anibal Romero, who complained: "You would find it hard to think of a more inadequate appointment. She's an enemy of private enterprise and intensely dislikes the culture of capitalism."
Opposition groups have announced that the protests will continue in February. Already actions have been called to coincide with a march to be led by Chávez at the beginning of next month.
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