Is Chavez a tyrant?

By Marcus Pabian

Commenting on the February 15 referendum in Venezuela to decide on amending article 230 of the country’s constitution to abolish the restriction that elected officials serve two terms, the editorial in the December 19 Washington Post claimed Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist president Hugo Chavez is an “authoritarian” who will use “force or fraud” to win the referendum because it “corruptly entrenches himself in power” in a country where elections are “no longer free and fair”. The editorial failed to mention that on December 18 the majority in Venezuela’s parliament had agreed to hold the referendum after receiving 4.5 million signatures supporting the constitutional amendment.

The signatures were collected in one week on streets across the country by Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). These facts omitted from the editorial reveal the popular support for Chavez and contradict the Post’s claim that Chavez is “authoritarian”, simply using his presidential “authority” to push through such changes. By providing no evidence of Chavez using “force or fraud” the editorial amounts to slander. It also deliberately and hypocritically failed to inform its readers about the violence used by US government-backed right-wing opposition groups in their campaign to defeat the amendment.

Chavez’s opposition has a long history of using violence in attempts to force its pro-capitalist politics on the majority of Venezuelans who continually reject them in elections, from their US backed military coup against the elected Chavez government in April 2002, the ongoing assassination of peasant leaders and unionists, to the current wave of violence.

Following their defeat in the regional elections in November last year the opposition violently attacked the famous health clinics and other social missions won by the revolution, expelling students from their classrooms and attacking Barrio Adentro health mission workers. In December, two-weeks of violent road blockades against the ammendment were organised by the opposition in the state of Merida. On January 9, over 40 pro-Chavez supporters were injured in an attack by opposition supporters in a public plaza in the state of Tachira.

These current attacks follow a pattern of behaviour by the opposition shown in the lead up to the constitutional referendum in December 2007. On November 8, 2007, opposition students attacked 150 people including pro-Chavez students and staff campaigning in favour of constitutional changes, trapping them in the School of Social Work at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) in the capital Caracas. Opposition students trashed equipment, burned down doors and surrounded the building throwing Molotov cocktails. A pro-opposition rector in charge of the university denied police access to the campus to free the students and staff, it wasn’t until a group of armed civilians on motorbikes arrived that people were freed.

On January 12, Pedro Carvajalino, a pro-Chavez reporter of the state-funded Avila TV, exposed opposition leaders and the head of Venezuela’s capitalist media corporation Globovision returning from a trip to Puerto Rico where they allegedly met with US officials from the Bush administration to plan their campaign against the amendment. On January 15, referring to the wave of opposition-organised violence Chavez said, “We know what this is about: it is the chaos plan, the Pact of Puerto Rico”. Citing everyone’s right to peaceful protest Chavez ordered the National Guard and police to defend peaceful protests and disperse the violent ones.

An opposition march planned for January 20 claiming to have peaceful intentions was exposed when Caracas Metropolitan Police Chief Carlos Meza announced that opposition vehicles preparing for the protest were busted containing Molotov cocktails, piles of rocks, car tires, gasoline, and homemade bombs. Despite the public exposure of its plans, the opposition pushed ahead and escalated its violent campaign. On January 27 opposition protests against the amendment took place in at least six states. The protesters, armed with Molotov cocktails, broken glass and concrete rocks, provoked a response from the police and National Guard who used tear gas to disperse some of the protests. Both Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami and PSUV vice-president Alberto Müller Rojas have accused the opposition of intentionally using violence to provoke repression that can be used “to make it look like this is a violent government.”

The violent tactics of the opposition have not deterred Chavez’s supporters. Around 100,000 “Yes committees” have been set up to campaign in favour of the constitutional amendment. The committees are organised out of women’s, youth and workers’ sectors as well as the new democratic grassroots communal councils and the PSUV. It’s clearly not Chavez who is “corruptly entrenching himself in power”, but working people organising to extend their right to elect the leader of their revolution.

The claim by the Washington Post that Chavez is in power because elections are “no longer free and fair” has been refuted at the end of every election held in Venezuela since Chavez was first elected as president in 1998 by independent election observers from across the world, such as the 130 observers at the November 2008 state and municipal elections who described them as fair, credible and transparent.

The campaign to discredit Chavez has been waged for years now by the US corporate media and the US government because the socialist revolution that Chavez is leading in Venezuela has put the needs of working people above the interests of corporate capitalism. The attempt to discredit Chavez as an “authoritarian” has been escalated by new US President Barack Obama who claimed in a January interview with Spanish language network Univision, without evidence, that Chavez is now “exporting terrorist activities” to neighbouring Colombia.

Previously, the furthest Bush had gone in trying to link Chavez as a sponsor of “terrorism” was his accusation, made last March, that Chavez had called for Colombia’s “FARC terrorists to be recognised as a legitimate army”, following Chavez’s January 2008 called on the European Union to remove from its list of terrorist organisations two Colombian left-wing guerrilla groups — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). During a televised speech, Chavez said: “I will ask Europe to remove the ELN and the FARC from the list of terrorist groups in the world, because that only has one source: the pressure of the United States.” Chavez added: “I say this even though somebody might be bothered by it: the FARC and the ELN are not terrorist groups. They are armies, real armies ... that occupy a space in Colombia.” Last June, Chavez called on the FARC to end its four-decade-long guerrilla war, arguing that “at this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place”.