Is Hugo Chavez cracking down on dissent?

By Marcus Pabian

“A top Venezuelan opposition leader is seeking political asylum in Peru … after fleeing his country to avoid what he calls a politically motivated witch hunt directed by the government of President Hugo Chavez”, the April 22 Washington Post reported. In a letter sent to media outlets during the previous week, opposition leader Manuel Rosales claimed that Chavez “has established an autocratic and totalitarian government, in which one cannot find democratic signs anywhere … We are ourselves persecuted for the same reasons as well as the thousands who are already in jail or exiled. The objective [of Chavez] is clear precise: An end must be brought to dissidence, no matter how.”

Rosales, who had been governor of the oil-rich western state of Zulia from 2002 to 2008, went into hiding after Zulia district attorney Katiuska Plaza, on March 19, requested a state court to issue an arrest warrant for him to face 26 charges of violating the country’s anti-corruption law. Plaza’s call was based on evidence presented to the her last December by a national parliamentary investigation commission led by legislator Mario Isea. The investigation found, among other things, that while governor of Zulia he had used public funds to purchase private lands and had transferred public money into offshore bank accounts, in addition to accepting bribes for public contracts.

In an April 14 report on the website of Fox News — the US cable and satellite TV channel owned by News Corporation, the world’s largest media corporation — Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, claimed that under the Chavez government, “you have a political system where people don’t have rights, the government controls all the means of communication ... and [Chavez] just doesn’t want anybody to come up and challenge him. This is the usual behavior of dictators.”

In fact, freedom of political speech has expanded with the Chavez government encouraging the growth of grassroots media run by poor communities. From just 13 licensed community radio stations in 2002, there are now 470. Purcell claimed that the Chavez government “controls all the means of communication” yet 79 out of 81 TV stations are privately owned, and most are opponents of the revolution Chavez leads.

The April 22 Washington Post reported that Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst with Caracas based Datanalisis, claimed that Chavez “is demonizing opposition leaders”, by making sure, “the opposition is seen as being responsible for going against the interests of the people”, as a cover for “controversial changes, including the centralization of power”, stripping power away from opposition state governors.

Violence and sabotage

The Washington Post and Fox News omitted from their reports any mention of the fact that the opposition “dissidents” have a seven-year history of organising violence and economic sabotage in an attempt to overthrow the elected government of Hugo Chavez. When Chavez attempted to take control of the nominally state-owned oil company PDVSA in 2001 to redirect its resources to meet the needs of poor working people, the pro-capitalist opposition leaders declared that this was a “threat to private property”. They launched a campaign that culminated in the overthrow of the Chavez government on April 11, 2002, by an opposition-organised military coup.

In collaboration with opposition leaders, the military top brass had Chavez detained incommunicado and installed business federation chief Pedro Carmona as Venezuela’s president. Carmona decreed the immediate abolition of the 1999 constitution, which had been approved in a referendum by 73% of voters. The parliament elected in July 2000 was also immediately abolished, along with the Supreme Court. These “Carmona decrees” were co-signed by opposition leaders, including Manuel Rosales, who now claims Chavez has established “an autocratic and totalitarian government”!

On the day after the anti-Chavez coup, protesters calling for the return of the elected Chavez government were gunned down in the streets by police loyal to the coup leaders. Despite this terror, on April 13, the coup was defeated by a mass uprising of working people and rebel soldiers. On the seventh anniversary of the defeat of the coup, Chavez described it as, “the day of the popular and military revolution”. Referring to the period between his elected as president in late 1998 and the April 2002 coup, Chavez stated that, “in those initial years there was a battle between two forces that could not coexist within one state and within one government: the forces of the revolution and those of the counter-revolution”. He said he was “the king idiot of them all” for having believed in a compromise between these irreconcilable forces.

In the six months prior to the April 2002 coup, the US government, mainly via CIA-run fronts, provided US$3.3 million in funds to the opposition leaders. According to Eva Golinger, author of the 2005 book The Chavez Code — Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela, the opposition has accepted $34 million in funding from the US government between 2000 and 2006.

April 2002 revolution

The April 13, 2002 “popular and military revolution” ended the capitalist class’s control over the Venezuelan armed forces. In the months following the mass uprising that overthrew Carmona’s government, supporters of the coup within the Venezuelan armed forces were forced into retirement. Those officers who had rebelled against the pro-capitalist generals on April 13 and who had sided with and helped lead the working-class insurrection against Carmona’s government were promoted to lead a military committed to advancing the revolutionary process.

Having lost control over the decisive instrument of state power to the pro-revolution forces, the opposition-aligned pro-capitalist managers and technicians of the giant PDVSA oil company sought to oust Chavez’s government by crippling Venezuela’s economy through a prolonged shutdown of its oil industry, launched in early December 2002. After a two-month long struggle in which soldiers and oil production workers were organised to restart PDVSA’s operations, the Chavez government took control of PDVSA and oriented it away from functioning as state-capitalist business. Instead, it was oriented towards providing financial and administrative resources to meet the education, health and other social needs of the country’s working majority through the now famous “social missions”.

The Chavez government’s takeover of PDVSA was the first expropriation of capitalist property and has been followed by the expropriation by the government of other strategic sectors of the economy, such as telecommunications, electricity generation, mining, aluminium, steel and cement production, as steps toward a centrally planned socialist economy.

Last September, national legislator and former Venezuelan vice-president Jose Vicente reported to the country’s parliament that the US government was at the centre of a foiled coup plot planned for October 15. Vicente’s report was prompted by the September 10 broadcast on the national television program La Hojilla (The Razorblade) of tape recordings in which retired military personnel discussed plans to assassinate Chavez by bombing his plane in mid-air as part of a plot to takeover government offices and TV installations.

Vicente accused Washington of using neighbouring Colombia as a base to orchestrate the coup, pointing to the $5.5 billion in mostly military aid the US has given Colombia since 2000; the sanctuary Colombia has given to Carmona, and the role of Juan Manuel, Colombian defence minister, in helping Carmona train military officers at Colombia’s military intelligence school. The opposition-controlled mass media ran a blackout of news on the exposed coup plot. Jorge Rodríguez, national coordinator of Chavez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), declared that the “silence of the private media is the expression of its participation in the coup d’etat attempt”.

Following the state and municipal elections last November, in which the opposition won five out of 22 state governorships, the opposition launched an assault on the social missions, closing down the centres where these programs operate from in the states of Miranda and Tachira. In the capital, Caracas, newly elected opposition mayor Antonio Ledesma sacked thousands of municipal workers. They responded by indefinitely occupying the mayor’s office building. On April 9, the national parliament voted to transfer most of the budget and control of municipal services from the opposition mayor to a new Caracas Capital District. A week later Chavez appointed Jacqueline Faria, PSUV vice-president and former president of Hidrocapital, the state-owned Caracas water company, as administrator of the newly formed Caracas Capital District.

The Chavez working people’s government has moved to stifle, not peaceful expressions of “dissent”, but the use of violence and sabotage by a US-funded pro-coup opposition that has repeatedly attempted to block the country’s working-class majority from achieving what it has mobilised to vote for in national elections — a society organised to meet working people’s needs, not the enrichment of capitalist business owners and their corrupt political representatives.