International Papers

Venezuela Strikes Out

Two months in, the opposition strike against the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez appears to be losing support. On Feb. 3, banks will return to normal opening hours, private universities will reopen, and Venezuela’s TV stations will resume their pre-stoppage soap opera schedule. Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that Chávez’s main victory is in the decisive oil industry, where production reached 1 million barrels per day—a third of the normal output—as the replacements for the 5,000 strikers fired by the president become more familiar with the work. An unnamed opposition figure told the paper, “It seems Chávez has won this round.” Spain’s El País reported that representatives from the Group of Friends of Venezuela (politicians from Spain, Portugal, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Chile) met with Chávez Friday to discuss a proposal that would see a binding presidential referendum in the middle of this year in exchange for an end to the strike. As part of the settlement, the presidential term would shrink from six to four years, so if Chávez won, he would govern until 2007.

The Financial Times reported earlier this week that Venezuela could become ungovernable if the strike continues into a ninth week: “[A] fast deteriorating economic crisis threaten[s] to tear apart already precarious social stability and lead to new and potentially more violent political tensions.” Elsewhere, the FT noted that the government is “deeply suspicious of the power and intentions of the Venezuelan media, which have unequivocally thrown their weight behind the campaign to oust Mr Chávez.” Venezuela’s foreign minister told the paper, “The media have been calling on the military to disobey orders and have openly advocated the president’s assassination.” Last week at the anti-globalization summit in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Chávez said, “The outside world should not be surprised if privately owned media were closed down in the weeks ahead.” El Universal said that hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters marched through Caracas in defense of the media and in favor of freedom of expression Friday.

This week the Venezuelan press appeared to abandon hope that the strike could succeed. An op-ed in Universal admitted “the country can stand no more.” It concluded that the opposition movement was “very strong tactically but weak strategically, as it demonstrated in its constant changes of direction (demanding an immediate resignation, immediate elections, a consultative referendum, a consultative but revocatory referendum, a revocatory referendum, a constituent assembly, a constitutional amendment), back and forths that have reduced its political effectiveness.” A column in Venezuela’s  El Mundo, whose masthead boasts the slogan “I prefer a dangerous liberty to quiet enslavement,” noted that international sympathy for the strike action was fading fast, that the general situation was becoming untenable, and that the economy was fast bottoming out. The column concluded that the time had come for talks, since the immediate choice is between “negotiation and chaos.”