Monday, February 03, 2003

January 29 to February 2, 2003

It is always interesting to check the foreign press when the situation shows some new development. After 62 days of strike things had to change some. The private sector could not keep on strike unless taking the risk to go to complete bankruptcy and not be able to oppose Chavez anymore. This was perhaps the main reason, besides of course some of the positive results that have been achieved, and not from a real fear to be blamed for the economical chaos which people knew well was a reality before the strike. But read the New York Times and you would think that the opposition has lost the battle. Watch European TV and you would think that tomorrow everything will open as if nothing. The truth is far from clear and as usual the Washington Post has a better understanding, going as far as saying that there are no winners. It is becoming a real mystery as to why the NYT seems unable to have a clue as to what is going on here.

But I better narrate these last days events.

The strike falters (?)

After two months the country needs a break. The real strike now is the oil industry strike. And the fight is the attempts by the government to break it. Everything else is dwarfed. The results have been good at least in one point: the world has finally taken notice and I think that foreign governments have a clearer idea than the NYT. Pursuing the strike was becoming counter productive. Yet, many people want to hear nothing on an eventual stop to the stoppage. Compromise was reached. Malls, movies and restaurants will reopen progressively with a limited schedule. No late shows for a while. Banks will resume normal schedule when security allows, since in the last two months security for money transfers has been greatly diminished. Schools are sill debating but some colleges will reopen in the next days.

But this is all relative: normal activity and industrial production cannot go back to normal as long as the oil strike goes on. You need a regular supply of gas and fuel to operate properly and meet your delivery schedule. There is no point to do a hard strike when you probably cannot reach half speed anyway. And of course the mobilization keeps going on. People have little money and even less desire to consume. But they would not mind taking the kids to Harry Potter… So we can relax a little but I can assure you that the strike can restart full force quite fast if needed.

The strike results

International opinion has noticed one thing: this is the only place in world where the government accuses of fascists and coup mongers an opposition that is non violent and claim for elections. Even after two months of a punishing strike that almost ruined everybody besides stealing Christmas and the holidays.

Carter came and made a strong proposal. The government is at a loss to make an answer, even to just gain time. So they are not talking.

In Lula da Silva swearing in ceremony January first the proposal of a “Friends of Venezuela” group was launched. Chavez said OK at first thinking he would get to chose the friends, but his eagerness seem to have cooled Lula da Silva who supposedly was to be an unconditional ally. By January 15 Chavez tried to force the inclusion of Cuba, Algeria and Russia (one wonders why Russia) but Lula said no and put in the USA, Spain, Portugal, Colombia and Chile. Chavez was not amused. It seems that real negotiations will have to be undertaken.

Another result is that the government is close from bankruptcy. Besides the fact that oil revenue is slashed by more than half, sales taxes have stopped coming in since early December, and income tax will be very low this year. Extending the harder aspects of the strike will only further ruin the private sector. Now the opposition just needs to watch how the government manages things. The first and predictable measure was currency exchange control. But the way it seems that this will be organized leads us to think that it will be a den of corruption and revenge, and not a source of real revenue to finance state obligations.

However, the most important result is that the country is totally mobilized for its rights and chavistas seem to have lost initiative. They have locked themselves in the same vacuous repetitions of 6 months ago while the scenario has considerably changed. And the world has noticed the democratic bent of the opposition in spite of the few faux-pas of April 2002.

Attack on the news

So chavistas are trying the next best thing, to shot the messenger. The strategy is to demonstrate that the TV concessions have failed their duty. A few charges have been made up as to the TV not providing “programming content appropriate to children”. Of course during the last two months we were all news. But if one looks at the state channel this one has become a plain vehicle for chavista propaganda and should be probably be the first one to be closed. But in a country of double and triple standard such technicalities are not to be a bother. Other charges are about violence on TV, in particular at the children hours. If one listens to some of Chavez speeches in the late afternoon, which are broadcast through all networks, he is the one that should sued.

The thing is that the government has found out that a state TV and the right to commandeer a few hours a day the private networks for their messages is not enough to hide the disaster it has created. Perhaps closing the TV, and newspapers, and radio stations will do the trick. So preliminary judicial investigations were initiated.

Well, this was again a big mistake and resulted in a spectacular march geared as a direct show of support by the crowds to “their” private media. This took place this past Friday 31, just in front of the Gran Melia hotel where the representatives of “Friends of Venezuela” were gathering.

I went to this march with my sister in law as no one else was able to go for diverse reason. Alone we did represent 12 people that would have liked to march had they been able to. It was a working day after all, and even during strike time some things do operate. Many of my fellow marchers must have represented other folks. We left at 2:30 PM and were back at home at 7 PM. Walking non stop across Caracas though the main highway (Francisco Fajardo). This highway has the particularity to have 4 lanes partially suspended over the other 4 lanes. It offers a spectacular set up as the 8 lanes were occupied for more than 2 miles. With of course a huge stage set astride the 8 lanes at the point where they merge again, in front of the delegation’s hotel. At 5 PM, the estimated peak hour, it was calculated that 465 000 people were standing packed. If you think this is high, you are in for a surprise. All the way through the several miles we marched many people waved at us, not participating but offering encouragement, flag waiving, etc… This was the same from other city points where 3 other similar marches started and converged to the same point. And when we arrived, a lot of people were already leaving, while many more were behind us, still arriving. And I pass on those that marched only a few blocks. It is fair to say that at least a million were involved at some point during that afternoon. And more of we think of those that could not come.

And it was also the more intense march I have participated so far. The energy was spectacular, the motivation incredible. After all we were defending our freedom of speech after its first frontal attack. And it was great for name dropping as most TV and Press personalities, as well as a boat load of artists, soap stars, singers, etc showed up. I personally met the editor of one of the two main papers (Miguel Otero from El Nacional) and one of its star reporters that also directs a tabloid, Ibeyise Pacheco. I had my sister in law pose next to Ibeyise. If I mention that is to illustrate the impression of carnival, of casualness, of folk fair that pervades these events now. And I will pass on the street vendors, with the latest novelty, baseball cap with the Venezuelan flag and a solar powered fan. I will try to set up pictures somewhere.

Obviously the people seem to side more with the style of their media rather than Chavez idea of what TV should show…

And allow me to introduce a racial comment here. Earlier in the afternoon I observed that the march was rather white and rather feminine. At 5:30 PM we reached the stage and made our way back. We did notice that the march had darkened a lot, and it was not due to the setting sun. The explanation? Administration workers and other service people that have been working through the strike were off and were coming to the rally! It might be a sad comment on the distribution of social roles, but it speaks volumes on the hopes that Chavez has betrayed. No matter, the racial division alleged by European media in particular, has ceased, at least when Chavez is in front of us.

Friends of Venezuela

Earlier in the day, Chavez had received the delegates and showed movies to justify his criticism of the news. Apparently the delegates were polite. In the afternoon the government did skip the negotiation table but the delegates met different sectors of the opposition. Chavez also made a claim that the strike was over. Curiously early in the day several gas stations of the eastern part of Caracas, the opposition core, received gas. Many of them had not received gas since mid December. Of course, with gas and the main highway blocked by the march traffic was almost back to normal in the remaining streets…

But troubles were just starting for Chavez. At 5 PM the delegates were taken from their reunion with the media to watch from high in the hotel the gathering below. One of them is said to have remarked that he did not know that there were so many capitalist exploiters in Venezuela. Obviously they learned more than what Chavez would have liked them to learn. Another one is said to have commented that he had no point of comparison with Latin American history as to people mobilization the way Caracas is doing routinely these days.

The communiqué at 9 PM was brief and clear. The delegates said diplomatically that the government and the opposition had to negotiate. That the opposition had made its case and proposals and that they would be waiting for the government proposals next week. If this might seem standard, translated from diplomatese it means “Chavez, enough! The opposition is legitimate and democratic. Their proposal is reasonable. You have no excuse not to negotiate. Bring your proposal and let’s get this moving. Or else.” This is big since for the first time the organized opposition is officially recognized as the only valid counter part for Chavez in spite of all of his efforts to make it look as the left over coup mongers of April. And what must have hurt the most is that the spokesperson chosen by the delegation was the Brazilian representative.

El Firmazo!

With the suspension of the February 2 consultative referendum 10 days ago, the miffed opposition has reacted well. And the attacks on the media did further prodding. The result was that today, February 2, we had an “alternative referendum”. With public school access barred, military traditional security denied, funds withheld, a ferocious campaign from the state TV against it, the opposition decided to collect the necessary signatures for up to 10 petitions depending on the areas. The general ones were the recall election on Chavez, and in many areas to boot many chavista elected officials. Other were support for the oil industry and a call for a new constituent assembly.

Now the electoral college in Venezuela hovers a little bit above 10 million. The opposition needs to collect 20% for a recall election on Chavez. That is, it needed to collect at least 2 million signatures in one day. And the other million later on perhaps since easily up to 20% signatures can be invalidated. A daunting task in the best of times. Well, it seems that the opposition might have collected 4 million and perhaps significantly more. Lines were long, the printed 2 million forms had to be photocopied in haste as registration centers were running out of material.

Think of it. At least 35% of the electors showed up on a Sunday to sign a sheet of paper with problematic value considering to whom they are intended to. And this without much gas to spare. Imagine 35% of the electors of your country taking a couple of hours of a Sunday to go and sign up. 35% of the adult US population signing up in a single day to kick out GWB. More than the votes he got to get in.

At 3 PM the opposition called for a mass rally at 6 PM near Plaza Altamira. This turned out to be yet another huge and emotive affair that ended at 9 PM with a great firework, just as if Chavez had been beaten in an election. The opposition must have known they were going to score big to set up such a display.

Of course Chavez is going to claim that the 60% that did not show up are on his side. Unfortunately he was elected with 3+ million and even if 20% of the 4+ of today are annulled, there is still 3+ valid votes firmly against him. And to add insult to injury the opposition has decided to set up many tables tomorrow to try to pick up an extra million and perhaps reach an unassailable 50%.

So, who is a democrat now?

Meanwhile Chavez was “celebrating” today the 4th anniversary of his swearing in n 1999. He did that at the presidential palace deciding wisely not to face potential hostile crowds outside. He did his weekly TV show establishing a record of sorts by lasting nearly 6 hours! The audience was not seen much and the usual hanger-on must have been on a mission. The highlight was perhaps his comment that a “group of terrorist were again trying to cheat the people to sign pieces of paper without legal value”. The end was a birthday cake split with a few soldiers. Pitiful to say the least.

A normal leader would consider resignation, or at least some form of serious negotiation. Chavez is unwavering in his goal to destroy his opposition even if it brings the country down.

Chavez winning the battle? Maybe some of the foreign correspondents should review their sources. At least CNN tonight was not too flattering for Chavez.

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