Supporters of the Chávez government, however, now appear to be gaining ground over the proimperialist opposition that is trying to oust him. Workers at refineries have been stepping up their efforts to increase oil production despite the bosses’ sabotage.
"The oil tankers are now moving every day at the lake [Maracaibo]," said unionist Yhonny García in a December 31 telephone interview. "Production in Zulia is now at 25 percent of pre-strike levels, a jump over mid-December." García is a member of the Bolivarian Workers Force, a pro-Chávez union federation, in Maracaibo, capital of the western state of Zulia, where much of the country’s oil drilling and production is concentrated. His comments were confirmed in other interviews and press reports.
"Oil shipments by the world’s no. 5 crude exporter rose in the past week but were held to less than 20 percent of November levels by a four-week strike led by foes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez," a December 29 Reuters dispatch reported. "Government efforts to break the strike helped boost oil exports to about 520,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the week ending Dec. 29, according to data from state oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and independent shippers. In the previous week, the government dispatched 260,000 bpd of crude."
Fedecámaras, Venezuela’s main business association, launched the general strike December 2. It is backed by the officialdom of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) and political parties grouped in the opposition coalition Democratic Coordinator.
The opposition is demanding Chávez’s resignation and early elections. U.S. officials initially joined the call for early elections, but, after Chávez made clear he would not accept that demand, have since taken a public position of promoting negotiations between the two sides toward an electoral solution to the conflict.
Chávez, a former military officer, was elected in 1998 with mass popular support at a time when the two traditional capitalist parties that ruled Venezuela for four decades had become discredited among working people and other layers of society devastated by the economic crisis. The dominant sections of the Venezuelan capitalist class, worried about the increased expectations of workers and farmers generated by Chávez’s election and some of the measures taken by his government, have sought to overthrow it. The encrusted trade union bureaucracy of the CTV, tied to the traditional capitalist establishment, has joined in the bosses’ campaign.
The drive to oust the president accelerated after the government passed measures in the fall of 2001 that cut into the prerogatives of big capital. These included a new agrarian reform law, protection for working fishermen from overfishing by large commercial companies, and use of some state funds for cheap housing and other social programs. Last April the employers orchestrated a military coup that overthrew Chávez, but within two days a countermobilization by hundreds of thousands of working people restored the president and dealt a political blow to the opposition. Nonetheless, these bourgeois forces have continued their attempts to destabilize the government.
In its first week the latest bosses’ strike, which began December 2, was largely a failure, with 80 percent of businesses operating. Fedecámaras seized on a December 6 shooting at a small pro-employer rally, during which three people were killed, to unite opposition forces and ratchet up street protests. It was then that the oil stoppage spread.
During a December 7 march by 400,000 in Caracas opposing the coup plotters, the president vowed to heed demands to take firm measures against the pro-imperialist opposition.
Workers, army restart oil production
"This time the government is making good on its promises," said Enrique Ramos, a leader of Fifth Republic Revolutionary Youth (JVR) in Valencia. He spoke to the Militant by phone while in Caracas on New Year’s eve.
On December 11 Venezuela’s navy seized two oil tankers that had been grounded by their crews in Lake Maracaibo in support of the strike. One of the tankers was full of gasoline.
The officers of those ships were arrested and trials began; a court later threw out the charges against Atilio Bermudez, the captain of the Yavire, one of the vessels.
"By the end of December, 10 of 12 tankers grounded by the strike were back in operation with new crews and officers," said Yhonny García. "Many new employees come from ferry and other merchant marine ships." García said some 70 percent of the tanker crews joined the opposition stoppage. "Skilled crew members on these tankers used to make $3,000 per month and officers double that--huge salaries for Venezuela," he noted.
On December 12 Chávez fired four dissident executives from the oil company’s board who are leaders of the employers’ strike. The government later dismissed another 90 top managers for participation in the strike. On December 19 the country’s Supreme Court ordered an end to the oil strike, backing government efforts to largely militarize production and distribution of oil through the duration of the stoppage.
National Guard troops have been working alongside production workers to restart refineries. Soldiers guard gas stations now and have impounded most gasoline transportation trucks of striking firms, which are driven by replacement drivers in some cases. Two days before Christmas, National Guard troops dispersed a protest in support of the reactionary stoppage by a few dozen people over the bridge on Lake Maracaibo, the only land connection between refineries on the east and west sides of the lake.
According to telephone interviews, some 80 percent of PDVSA’s 30,000 production workers remain on the job. The majority of the 10,000 administrative personnel, skilled technicians, and managers are on strike. This contrasts with reports in the big-business media claiming that the large majority of the oil workers are striking.
"I visited El Palito twice in the last two weeks, along with other students," said Joel Pantoja, a student at the University of Carabobo in Valencia, in a December 31 phone interview. El Palito is one of Venezuela’s largest refineries. "We saw that the managers had taken computers and damaged computerized controls at the refinery when they left," he said. "This kind of sabotage and the strike by tanker crews and truck firms distributing gasoline brought production to a standstill. But we have brought things under control to a degree. Oil workers and troops have put El Palito back in operation. Last week production was up to 25 percent of normal levels. If we continue like this across the country, the opposition will suffer a big defeat in a few weeks."
There are other examples where workers have taken action to restore production.
While most basic industry was operating in December, Venezuela’s state-owned steel company had to cut down production early on. "Venezuelan steelmaker Siderúrgica del Orinoco CA, or Sidor, announced [December 12] it is cutting back production because gas supplies needed for operations are down 60% as a result of a nationwide strike," the Dow Jones Business News reported that day.
A week later, "Steelworkers in three buses went to an area where sabotage was suspected," said Yhonny García. "They found natural gas pipelines damaged and valves shut off. They repaired them, with the help of technicians. Now production at Sidor is back up to nearly 100 percent."
In addition to these measures, the government has begun to import gasoline from Brazil and Trinidad, as well as importing flour and other foodstuffs from other countries.
Joel Pantoja reported that imports of flour and other foodstuffs were necessary. "Right in the middle of the holidays, soft drinks, beer, and flour for arepas [a popular pita-like bread] have become scarce," he said. "This is because the Grupo Mendoza, which owns Empresas Polar, the second largest capitalist family in the country, is solid for the strike. They have shut down Pepsi Cola plants, Polar beer breweries, and cooking oil factories, which they own."
According to Pantoja and others interviewed the government has countered by aiding small firms producing soft drinks and flour to boost production and is working with small farmers to increase wheat shipments.
Such measures have increased the president’s popularity among many working people, especially in the rural areas. "Yes, we don’t have gasoline, or at least you have to wait all night to get some, but I blame that on the reactionaries organizing another coup against Chávez," said María Pérez, whose husband farms in the town of San Carlos, Cojedes state. "The president is for the poor and we’ll fight to the death those who are trying to bring him down."
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