The biggest threat to the world oil supply is not the volatile situation in the Middle East or Iraq’s unilateral suspension of exports, but the deteriorating crisis in Venezuela, where an unusual coalition of trade unionists and business owners extended Tuesday’s general strike for at least another 24 hours. Venezuela is the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter, and according to Spain’s ABC, Tuesday’s strike “paralyzed” the industry—refineries were virtually shut down and striking dockworkers delayed shipments of crude by refusing to load tankers. Organizers told Venezuela’s El Nacional that 80 percent of the country’s workforce obeyed the strike call Tuesday; they also declared Wednesday’s extension a “success.” President Hugo Chávez and his government contradicted the organizers, claiming that the oil sector was “working at 100 percent capacity,” and constantly interrupting TV and radio news transmissions throughout Tuesday to broadcast anti-strike messages. On Wednesday, the government decreed a “state of military alert,” an army general accused Chávez of protecting Colombian guerrillas who crossed the border into Venezuela, and the strike organizers threatened to maintain the work stoppage “indefinitely.”
The general strike was called in solidarity with managers at Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil monopoly, who stepped up a six-week industrial action this weekend after President Chávez fired seven of the company’s executives and announced the “retirement” of 12 others. The Financial Times (which has compiled an excellent special report on Chávez’s Venezuela) reported that the PDVSA managers “say the directors named by Mr Chávez are political loyalists with no interest in the financial well-being of the company and that meritocracy was ignored in the selection process.” The PDVSA managers also object to the deep oil-price subsidies Chávez gave to Cuba.
Britain’s Guardian summarized the underlying tensions in Venezuela: “Three years after he won elections with widespread support, Mr Chavez is confronting a storm of criticism from political foes, business and trade union chiefs, dissident military officers, and the opposition-dominated media. While the president defends his self-proclaimed ‘revolution’ as a noble campaign to help the poor, his critics accuse him of trying to introduce a Cuban-style regime.” In an attempt to win back popular support ahead of the strikes, on Sunday Chávez announced a 20 percent increase in the minimum wage. Spain’s El Mundo noted that the wage raise “contradicts the austerity policy that [Chávez] decreed. It’s the politics of the carrot and the stick in its purest form.”
El Nacional encouraged its readers to “take back the streets.” It said:
Today we have to take to the streets to show that scoundrel [Chávez] the power of Venezuelans: We are a decent and worthy people, we want to move toward a new democracy that is not full of hatred nor motivated by revenge or resentment. The president has surrounded himself with killers, who in the past did not scruple to shoot defenseless people. That same group today walks in silent partnership with Cuban agents and Colombian guerrilla groups, united to act violently against Venezuelans.