CARACAS -- "Where are they
getting their money?" asks historian Samuel
Moncada, as the television displays one opposition
commercial after another. Moncada is chair of the
history department at Central University of
Venezuela in Caracas. We are sitting in one of the
few restaurants that is open in the eastern, wealthier
part of Caracas.
For two weeks during this country's
business-led strike, the privately owned stations that
dominate Venezuelan television have been running
opposition "info-mercials" instead of
advertisements, in addition to what is often non-stop
coverage of opposition protests.
"I am sure there is money from abroad,"
asserts Moncada. It's a good guess: prior to the coup
on April 11, the U.S. National Endowment for
Democracy stepped up its funding to opposition
groups, including money funneled through the
International Republican Institute. The latter's
funding multiplied more than sixfold, to $340,000
But if history is any guide, overt funding
from Washington will turn out to be the tip of the
iceberg. This was the case in Haiti, Nicaragua,
Chile, and other countries where Washington has
sought "regime change" because our leaders didn't
agree with the voters' choice at the polls. (In fact, Washington is currently aiding efforts to oust President Aristide in Haiti -- for the second time). In these episodes, which extended into the 1990s, our government concealed amounts up to the hundreds of millions of dollars that paid for such things as death squads, strikes, economic destabilization, electoral campaigns and media.
All this remains to be investigated in this
case. But the intentions of the U.S. government are
clear. Last week the State Department ordered non-
essential embassy personnel to leave the country,
and warned American citizens not to travel here.
But there have not been attacks on American
citizens or companies here, from either side of the
political divide, and this is not a particularly
dangerous place for Americans to be.
In this situation, the State Department's
extreme measures and warning can only be
interpreted as a threat. The Bush Administration has
also openly sided with the opposition, demanding
early elections here. Then this week Washington
changed its position to demanding a referendum on
Chavez's presidency, most likely figuring that a
divided opposition could easily lose to Chavez in an
election, despite its overwhelming advantage in
controlling the major means of communication.
The discussion in the U.S. press, dominated
by Washington's views, has also taken on an
Orwellian tone. Chavez is accused of using
"dictatorial powers" for sending the military to
recover oil tankers seized by striking captains. Bush Administration spokesman Ari Fleischer urged the Venezuelan government "to respect individual rights and fundamental freedoms."
But what would happen to people who
hijacked an oil tanker from Exxon-Mobil in the
United States? They would be facing a trial and a
long prison sentence. Military officers who stood
outside the White House and called for the
overthrow of the government (and this just six
months after a military coup supported by a foreign
power) would end up in Guantanamo facing a secret
military tribunal for terrorism.
In fact, the U.S. press would be much more
fair if it held the Venezuelan government to the
standards of the United States. In the U.S.,
government workers do not have the right to strike
at all, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated when he
summarily fired 12,000 air traffic controllers in
1981. But even this analogy is incomplete: the air
traffic controllers were striking for better working conditions. Here, the employees of the state-owned oil company -- mostly managers and executives -- are trying to cripple the economy, which is heavily dependent on oil exports, in order to overthrow the government. In the United States, even private sector workers do not have the legal right to strike for political demands, and certainly not for the president's resignation.
In the United States, courts would issue
injunctions against the strike, the treasuries of
participating unions would be seized, and leaders
would be arrested.
Meanwhile, outside of the wealthier areas of
eastern Caracas, businesses are open and streets are
crowded with shoppers. Life appears normal. This
is clearly a national strike of the privileged, and
most of the country has not joined it.
More than anything right now, this country
needs dialogue and a ratcheting down of the
tensions and hostilities between the two opposing
camps, so as to avoid a civil war. But this dialogue
will never happen if the United States continues to
pursue a course of increasing confrontation.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for
Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C.