International Papers

Must Hugo Go?

As Venezuela’s general strike, organized by opponents of President Hugo Chávez, enters its third week, and hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to take to the streets each day, Spain’s El País declared, “The war of marches and demonstrations … cannot continue indefinitely … without running the risk of emotions overflowing and reproducing the serious events of last April, in which 19 demonstrators lost their lives.” The Financial Times described a divided Caracas, in which “social divisions are being starkly accentuated by the political crisis and the rhetoric pumped out by rival media. A three-week strike is pitting those in the wealthier east of the city against those in the poorer west, location of the Miraflores presidential palace.” There are four years still to run in Chávez’s presidential term, but the protesters are demanding early elections within the next few months. Colombia’s El Tiempo reported that this weekend, members of the Chávez government agreed to consider early elections if they involved every level of government, including mayors, governors, and national assembly positions.

The engine of Venezuela’s economy, the oil industry, has been particularly hard-hit by the strike. As many as 40 tankers are anchored off the coast, unable to load or unload, and within Venezuela, severe fuel shortages are leading to hours-long lines at gas stations. On Sunday, troops loyal to Chávez took control of the oil tanker Pilín León, and the president vowed to re-establish activities in the nation’s oil facilities. According to Clarín of Argentina, a private Venezuelan TV channel kept a camera on the Pilín León, a symbol of anti-Chávez resistance for the strikers, for several days, while regular programming was relegated to a corner of the screen. Opposition union leader Carlos Ortega claimed the crew that took over the tanker was Cuban, “sent by Castro.” In an interview with Clarín, Ortega, who said he would rather die than continue to live under Chávez’s rule, refused to consider a holiday truce: “There’ll be no Christmas this December. At best, we’ll celebrate in January.”

An op-ed in Caracas’ El Universal supported the oil workers’ decision to gamble everything in the hope of forcing Chávez to call new elections. It said the president’s refusal to negotiate demonstrated a “closed and lazy attitude under the egotistical excuse of saying no to blackmail [that] only justifies the productive sector’s radical position, which has mortally injured the economy in order to save democracy, to save the country from a much worse agony.” Another El Universal op-ed worried that it will be difficult to find a solution to Venezuela’s political problems because there are too many competing interests. The Organization of American States cannot accept new elections—forced by either a president’s unpopularity at home or external pressure—because every other president in the region would fear for their administration if electors could reconsider a year after they took power. For the United States, the supreme considerations are the reliability of the oil supply and support for the struggle to fight Colombia’s drug cartels, and Venezuelans worry about the possible expansion of the Colombian conflict onto Venezuelan territory, since “in an extreme situation … subversive Colombian groups” might support their left-wing Venezuelan counterparts.

Kidnapped at Christmas: Several Colombian papers used the occasion of the Christmas holidays to remember the thousands of people held in captivity by guerrillas or “common delinquents.” According to the Fundación País Libre (Open Country Foundation), 17,262 people have been kidnapped in Colombia since 1997. In 2001, 3,041 were snatched, and between January and October of this year 2,492 kidnappings were reported. El Colombiano noted that the governor of Antioquia province has been held for eight months, while El Espectador remembered Ingrid Betancourt, the presidential candidate snatched on Feb. 23.