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Venezuela: pro-imperialist referendum drive falters
U.S.-backed Colombian army deployment becomes more provocative
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 68/No. 11March 22, 2004

lead article
Venezuela: pro-imperialist
referendum drive falters
U.S.-backed Colombian army deployment
becomes more provocative
Jorge Silva/Reuters
Thousands in Caracas, Venezuela, celebrate March 2 announcement by elections council that nearly half the signatures are invalid on petition organized by the pro-imperialist opposition to hold a referendum to unseat President Hugo Chávez.

The drive by large sections of Venezuela’s capitalist class to force a referendum to recall the country’s president Hugo Chávez shows signs of faltering.

Opposition groups carried out small, violent protests in Caracas and other Venezuelan cities in the days before and after the March 2 announcement by the National Electoral Council (CNE) that only about half the signatures on petitions demanding such a referendum were valid.

Following an antigovernment demonstration of more than 200,000 in Caracas March 6, however, the pro-imperialist opposition seemed divided on what steps to take next.

Leaders of Coordinadora Democrática, the opposition coalition backed by Washington, appealed for calm and pleaded with U.S. and other imperialist “experts” in the country to pressure the government to allow a recall vote.

Washington, which has backed the two-year-long drive to oust the elected government, has so far made low-key statements about the CNE decision.

“We will work with the Organization of American States to help ensure the integrity of the presidential recall and referendum process under way in Venezuela,” said U.S. president George Bush during a March 6 news conference at his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

At the same time, the Pentagon has been moving ahead with arming, training, and advising Colombia’s military in preparation for a possible armed provocation against neighboring Venezuela. According to a March 6 press release by the National Liberation Army (ELN), one of the groups waging guerrilla warfare against the government in Bogotá, Colombia’s armed forces have recently deployed several divisions, equipped with heavy AMX30 tanks suited for tactical combat, along the nearly 1,400-mile-long border with Venezuela.

The ELN press release also stated that Colombia’s army chief, Gen. Martín Orlando Carreño, announced in early March that the military was about to deploy another 30,000 soldiers to the Catatumbo forest area, which borders northwestern Venezuela at the oil-rich Zulia state, where a large U.S. military base is being built at a cost of $300 million.

In a 3-2 vote, the National Electoral Council of Venezuela ruled that only 1.8 million of the 3.4 million signatures the opposition coalition had submitted December 19 on a recall referendum petition were valid. This is far below the 2.4 million required by the constitution to trigger a recall vote. The board disqualified 140,000 signatures outright. It also announced that another 1 million signatures need to be reconfirmed because of petition irregularities. This is to be done by each signer showing up and personally verifying his or her signature at one of 2,700 polling stations around the country between March 18 and 22.

On March 7, the CNE turned over to Coordinadora Democrática leaders part of its database with the evidence that formed the basis of its decision.  
Caracas points to U.S. intervention
Chávez said in a meeting two days earlier with foreign ambassadors in Caracas that hundreds of thousands of those who supposedly signed petitions do not exist. He displayed copies of petition forms bearing the names of people living abroad who do not appear in the country’s voter rolls, minors, and people who died long ago. He called the opposition “a terrorist and coup-mongering movement dressed in democratic clothes, which is trying to unseat the government.”

The Venezuelan president also accused Washington of instigating the campaign to topple his government. “We have enough proof that Mr. Bush continues to finance terrorist and putschist groups in Venezuela,” Chávez told the foreign diplomats. He demanded that Washington “get its hands off Venezuela.”

During his weekly Sunday TV show on March 7, Chávez threatened that Caracas would freeze oil shipments to the United States if the U.S. government took military action against Venezuela.

The world’s fifth-largest oil producer, Venezuela exports 1.5 million barrels of oil per day to the United States—its fourth-largest supplier.

Organization of American States officials and representatives of the U.S.-based Carter Center have stated their disagreement with the CNE decision to disqualify such a large number of signatures.

Opposition figures appeared to despair at the CNE ruling. Verifying the signatures of 1 million people person-by-person would be “physically impossible,” said María Corina Machado, a spokesperson for Sumate, “especially if we have to defend each and every one of these signatures. The way the government has it now, none of the challenged signatures are valid unless a person shows up and says, ‘Yes, that’s my signature.’” Sumate is a group that spearheaded the anti-Chávez petition campaign with the help of tens of thousands of dollars from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy.

The opposition coalition has lobbied for a system in which disputed signatures can only be removed by the person whose signature appears on the petition. Electoral authorities, however, have said the reconfirmation process must take place by the rules they announced or the recall referendum request would be declared null and void.

Having missed the requirement for a referendum apparently by as many as 600,000 signatures, the pro-imperialist opposition has lost the initiative and has divided.

After the March 6 opposition protest in downtown Caracas, a number of Coordinadora Democrática leaders said they want to continue staging protests to press for a recall vote. Others, however, called for rejecting the validation process altogether and taking to the streets to confront the Chávez government directly.  
Stake in the unfolding showdown
Chávez was elected president in 1998 with huge popular support against the traditional capitalist parties, which now dominate the opposition coalition along with the country’s main business association, Fedecámaras. He was re-elected by a similar margin in 2000. A former paratrooper in the National Guard, Chávez achieved prominence through a failed 1992 military coup, which he presented as a response by “progressive” military officers to the repercussions of a 1989 working-class rebellion known as the Caracazo.

In that revolt, working people broke into supermarkets to take food and poured into the streets, marching toward wealthy neighborhoods to protest steep price hikes, skyrocketing unemployment, and rapidly deteriorating living and working conditions. President Carlos Andrés Pérez of Democratic Action, a social democratic party, sent the military to crush the Caracazo. It is estimated that the army killed more than 3,000 people in Caracas alone.

After the failure of the 1992 coup, popular discontent spread as the Democratic Action regime unleashed fierce repression.

Chávez is the head of a Bonapartist regime—a government whose central figure presents himself as a “strong man” standing above the traditional political institutions and balancing class interests between the country’s impoverished majority and the wealthy classes.

For example, the government has used the National Guard for popular programs such as the distribution of food in workers districts at prices half of those in the regular markets. At the same time, it has also used the same troops on occasion to evict peasants from land they have taken over in disputes with capitalist landlords.

Chávez’s party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), is a multi-class formation. While he often appeals to working people and small businessmen to rally behind his government’s policies, he also draws support from some middle-class layers and a minority section of the capitalist class.

The bourgeois nationalist government has left the country’s capitalist social relations virtually intact. The capitalist class in Venezuela, one of Latin America’s most industrialized and wealthiest countries, continues to hold state power, and is using its economic power to try to cripple the government.

The Chávez administration has drawn the wrath of the decisive layers of the domestic capitalists and landlords, as well as Washington, because of policies—including a land reform and other measures adopted in the fall of 2001—that if implemented would cut into the prerogatives of local and foreign finance capital. Diplomatic and trade ties with revolutionary Cuba established by Caracas since 1998 have also fueled the developing class confrontation.

The U.S. government has placed the Chávez regime in its cross hairs because of large mobilizations by working people the last two years—from the takeover of millions of acres by landless peasants, to the popular outpouring that derailed an April 2002 military coup and a bosses’ “strike” a year ago. Through these struggles Venezuela’s workers and peasants have gained self-confidence and heightened expectations. They are the main obstacles to the current pro-imperialist drive to unseat the president through a referendum.

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