"Bye-bye Aristide, Chavez
Venezuela: Right-wing opposition
clamours for another US-backed coup
by Mauricio Saavedra
World Socialist Web Site,
March 16, 2004
A wave of political unrest and violence
now unfolding in Venezuela bears all the hallmarks of a "made
in Washington" destabilisation campaign. In the wake of the
US-organized overthrow of Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide, this
campaign is aimed at creating an atmosphere of chaos in the oil-rich
South American nation, setting the stage for a military takeover
and a wave of terror against the working class.
The most recent unrest flared when the
country's National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that it could
verify only 1.8 million of the 3.1 million petitions a right-wing
alliance claimed it gathered to oust Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez. A total of 2.4 million signatures are needed to force
a plebiscite on Chavez's presidency.
The CNE ruled that 1.1 million signatures
needed further verification, while it rejected 140,000 signatures
outright, including repeated signatures and the names of long-deceased
voters, non-nationals, children and members of the armed forces.
The disputed petitions includes ones in which details appear to
have been completed in the same handwriting.
News of rioting in a country which is
the world's fifth-largest oil exporter sent jitters through global
markets and drove the price of world crude up to $33.44 a barrel,
its highest level since the US-led invasion of Iraq last year.
Oil prices shot up on fears that last year's management-provoked
three-month-long oil shutdown could be repeated. Oil exports,
which account for almost 80 percent of Venezuela's earnings, were
brought to a standstill then, resulting in the country's worst-ever
economic crisis-GDP contracted 9.2 percent last year, after shrinking
8.9 percent in 2002.
Since February 28, the political violence
has left 10 dead, dozens injured and several hundred arrested.
Thousands of anti-Chavez forces from the wealthier suburbs of
Caracas barricaded the capital's major highway with litter and
tyres set alight and battled hundreds of thousands of people who
streamed down from poorer quarters to rally in support of the
Unable to rely on a police force under
the control of opposition politicians, the government has mobilised
national guard and army troops, equipped with heavy armoured vehicles,
tear gas and rubber bullets. AFP reported that police "have
patrolled without stepping in as demonstrators burned trash, hurled
Molotov cocktails and in some cases opened fire with handguns."
Several police officers have since been arrested. The government
has also suspended the right to bear arms until March 14, ostensibly
to prevent a bloodbath.
Leading members of the multi-party Coordinadora
Democratica opposition entered into discussions late last week
with the CNE, government officials and international electoral
observers on the procedure to verify the signatures.
Even as they continue negotiating, the
opposition has not ruled out sidelining the referendum process
altogether and unleashing a wave of rioting aimed at provoking
a military coup. The Venezuelan president, a former paratrooper
himself, stacked the military with handpicked cronies following
a US-backed coup that briefly brought a civilian-military junta
to power in April 2002. The coup collapsed in the face of mass
demonstrations and rioting by supporters of the Chavez government
centred in the impoverished neighbourhoods of Caracas. While the
military has to date remained silent, the opposition hopes that
its efforts may still win the support of commanding officers.
Last weekend's mass rallies organised
by the Coordinadora Democratica brought out tens of thousands
of demonstrators demanding that the CNE change its proposal on
reconfirming the disputed petitions. The CNE wants to set up 1,000
booths from March 18-22 to allow petitioners to authenticate their
own signatures. The opposition demands that the CNE instead verify
the signatures by checking a "statistically sound random
sample," a proposal initially aired by the Organization of
"This is going to be a logistical
nightmare," an observer said. "You're talking about
over a million people. We don't even know if it can be done."
However, late last year the opposition boasted of having collected
three million signatures in just four days, a process that the
February 28 issue of the Economist said "went smoothly, witnessed
by officials from the government, the opposition and the CNE."
The opposition-composed of Venezuela's
traditional political parties, the chamber of commerce and manufacturers'
association, as well the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers,
the country's bureaucratized labour organization-is split over
what road to take. While one section is in discussions with the
electoral commission, another has denounced the commission as
an entity controlled by an autocratic government-a position endorsed
by the US administration.
"We have always maintained that the
rights of the Venezuelan citizens who have been signing these
petitions need to be respected and that the constitutional processes
need to be observed," said State Department spokesman Richard
Boucher. "The Venezuelan government has, at times, agreed
with those rights, but often we've seen activity that we think
is not consistent with that."
"We underscore the need for a timely
process that facilitates participation and respects the constitutional
rights of the Venezuelan citizens who signed the various recall
petitions," he added.
Whatever roadblocks Chavez has thrown
in the path of the recall campaign, the Bush administration that
now poses as the champion of democratic procedure itself came
to power by halting the popular vote in the US in 2000, and it
backed the violent overthrew of Chavez in 2002.
In line with the notion that the Chavez
government is trampling upon the democratic rights of the opposition,
the OAS and the Carter Center-a think tank established by former
US president Jimmy Carter-said in a joint release: "We understand
the concerns of the CNE, but the evaluation should start from
the presumption of the good faith of the citizen as a universal
principle." Their statement followed earlier requests that
the CNE not get "bogged down in minor technicalities"
and to "respect the will of the people."
The five-man electoral commission is composed
of two pro-Chavez and two anti-Chavez officials and a fifth member,
the organization's president Francisco Carrasquero, who is ostensibly
neutral and casts the deciding vote.
The recall referendum emerged from an
accord signed May 29, 2003 by the government, the OAS and the
Carter Center, and the Coordinadora Democratica, which after failing
to bring down Chavez through extra-parliamentary means opted for
an attempt to oust him via an "electoral solution".
They agreed to utilise a clause written into the 1999 constitution
drafted by the Chavez administration, in which the incumbent must
submit to a recall referendum halfway through his term if 20 percent
of the electorate request such a vote.
With the possibility that the recall may
never see the light of day, another fraction of the opposition,
the groupings associated with rightwing terrorist outfits, are
itching to wreak havoc.
The March 4 edition of the San Francisco
Chronicle referred to opposition protesters with banners reading
"Bye-bye Aristide, Chavez you're next" and calling for
the army to intervene. Dario Azzelini from the Internet site Venezuelanalysis.com
similarly observed that "leading sectors of Venezuela's opposition
hope to stimulate once again a military coup or even a US intervention.
A few hundred even demonstrated in front of the US embassy in
Caracas in favour of an intervention, holding up signs saying
'1 Hussein; 2 Aristide; 3 Chavez.'"
Some have rallied behind Miranda state
governor Enrique Mendoza and his police chief Hermes Rojas Peralta,
who has strong links to Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile CIA
operative who was jailed in Venezuela in connection with the bombing
of a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people, and is now facing
charges for attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro in Panama.
Also active in this network is a rightwing terrorist group known
as the Venezuelan Patriotic Front, and the Miami-based Cuban émigré
terrorist front known as the Comandos F4. This last group, the
Comandos F4, candidly stated February 28 that it had reactivated
the "Latin American Civic-Military Alliance" to "coordinate
military expertise and experience and exchange intelligence"
on leftists in Latin America.
These fascistic outfits form part of an
opposition that has received both covert and overt funding from
Washington. According to recent documents obtained through the
Freedom of Information Act, US agencies funnelled over a million
dollars in April 2002 and another $800,000 since June of the same
year to organizations associated with the Venezuelan opposition.
Among the organizations to receive the
most funds is the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers
(CTV), which between 1998 and March 2003 had $631,000 channelled
through the American Center for International Labor Solidarity-a
part of the US government-financed National Endowment for Democracy
that is run jointly with the US AFL-CIO labour bureaucracy. The
CTV bureaucracy assisted the Venezuelan business association in
planning the 2002 coup and in organizing a 12-hour strike/lockout
that shut down light industry, banks and the retail sector to
demand that Chavez resign.
These forces also enjoy close ties to
Bush's chief policy-makers on Latin America, including presidential
envoy Otto Reich, US ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro-both
were engaged in intimate discussions with the putschists prior
to and during the military overthrow of Chavez two years ago-and
Roger Noriega, who last September replaced Reich as Assistant
Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Shapiro and Reich are linked to the massacres
and assassinations carried out by El Salvador's military-backed
death squads, as well as to Lt. Col. Oliver North's illegal network
for funding the "contra" war against Nicaragua in the
1980s. Noriega, a newer Republican apparatchik, began his career
as an aide to the extreme anti-communist senator from North Carolina,
Jesse Helms, and was then tapped as Washington's permanent representative
to the OAS.
What characterizes all of these officials
is their pathological hatred of socialism, democracy and the international
working class. They are ideologically committed to a foreign policy
directed at quashing any attempt, no matter how meagre, to shift
wealth and power away from the multinational corporations and
the native oligarchies.
A case in point is Chavez, elected twice
with the largest popular margins in Venezuelan history on promises
of agrarian reform and reducing entrenched poverty. He has earned
Washington's ire through his populist rhetoric, friendly ties
to Cuba's Fidel Castro, opposition to the Free Trade Agreement
of the Americas and his refusal to carry out the privatization
of Venezuela's giant state-owned oil company, PDVSA.
Yet "emerging market bond investors
like Chavez in power because they know he's going to continue
to service the debt," a Deutsche Bank economist observed
recently. Moreover Chavez has overseen a redrafting of the constitution
in 2000 that "liberalized foreign investment laws and strengthened
the economy's capitalist foundation." That is, his railing
against neo-liberalism notwithstanding, he is implementing the
demands of the foreign banks and international financial institutions.
Despite this, the US-backed Venezuelan
putschists are clamouring for Washington to intervene, as they
attempt to create a political climate akin to the one that existed
in Haiti on the eve of the anti-Aristide coup.