Jens Eric Gould
November 21, 2006
With only two weeks to go until election day, Chavez's government is pressuring state employees to support him
If you're an employee of the Venezuelan state oil company, you better vote for President Hugo Chavez when he stands for reelection next month —or you might lose your job.
Under Chavez's rule, this might appear to be simply an unspoken commandment. After all, the halls of state companies and ministries are covered in Chavez paraphernalia and many employees religiously wear red, the color of the leftist leader's "Bolivarian Revolution." But this blunt message was actually delivered by Rafael Ramirez, Chavez's energy minister and president of state oil company PDVSA, to company directors in a recent closed meeting captured on video and released to the media by Chavez's opponents.
The apparent ultimatum poured salt on the opposition's wounds from 2003, when Chavez purged the company of dissidents after they led a devastating national oil strike. "We threw 19,500 enemies of the country out of this company," Ramirez said with remarkable candor in the video, "and we're prepared to keep doing it to guarantee that this company is aligned and corresponds with the love that the people have expressed for our president."
With the December 3 election now less than two weeks away, the rift between devotees and foes of Chavez is widening. Chavez, who famously called President Bush "the devil" at the United Nations, will face opposition candidate Manuel Rosales, who Chavez accuses of being backed by the "empire," — in other words, the United States. For his part, Rosales says he will tackle the country's rampant crime and corruption problems, end Chavez's abundant aid to other leftist countries like Cuba and stop basing the distribution of government funding at home on political loyalty.
Government slogans, mind you, don't reflect Venezuela's divisions —they would have you believe that this country lives in harmony. Logos that read "Venezuela: now it's for everyone" and "PDVSA is of the people" line roads and subways stations across Caracas.
But for someone who preaches the virtues of integration in Latin America, Chavez has no qualms about sowing division within his own country.
While it's true that he has inspired more political and community participation among the lower classes, most activities sponsored by the state are heavily politicized.
At a ceremony held this month to hand over workers' permits to employees of the state oil company, 600 oil workers in red shirts and caps chanted "They won't come back!" — a reference to Chavez opponents who used to manage the company. Countless people who signed in favor of holding a referendum to oust Chavez in 2004 have claimed they have been blacklisted from getting a government job.
A foundation for homeless children organized by the Caracas mayor's office even had their kids write get-well letters to Fidel Castro, Chavez's closest ally, when the Cuban leader fell sick earlier this year.
Chavistas and the opposition fight over everything, including colors. The Chavez-aligned party Fatherhood for All recently demanded the Supreme Court prohibit Rosales' campaign from using the color blue, arguing they had already claimed it. The court rejected the appeal.
Not even Venezuela's biggest sports rivalry — a match-up between the Caracas and Valencia baseball teams — could compete with the country's political duel. A packed game in Caracas earlier this month erupted with rallying cries from Rosales supporters and retorts from chavista baseball fans when the opposition candidate appeared in the stands. So loud was the political disturbance that players stopped the game momentarily.
In this heated and polarized environment, conflicts and disturbances that seemingly have very little to do with national politics are often framed as a government-versus-opposition feud. When police injured eight people in a clash after fishermen seized a local port in the sleepy eastern town of Guiria, the local governor, a Chavez ally, was quick to blame the violence on "a group of people who want to destabilize the country." But when asked, fishermen said the conflict was far from political.
They just wanted to be able to use their ice plant again, they said, since the port authority had shut it down. And while the opposition did paralyze the oil industry during strikes in 2002 and 2003, the national oil company has continued to blame accidents at its installations on "sabotage" rather than concede that they could be company blunders.
Chavez certainly has reason to be suspicious of the opposition. His opponents first tried undemocratic means to get rid him — through a coup and strikes — before failing to oust him democratically in a recall referendum in 2004. Chavez's opponents further dug themselves into a hole when they boycotted parliamentary elections last year, leaving the legislature completely controlled by Chavez allies.
And though the opposition-backed private media has cooled down since the days of the coup, its reporting is often heavily slanted against Chavez.
But Chavez's heavy-handed governance has also helped fuel the opposition. Praising Ramirez for his speech caught on tape, Chavez suggested jokingly that his minister be nominated for a Nobel Prize in publicity for inventing a phrase that calls the company's color "red, very red." He urged Ramirez to repeat his remarks "100 times more" and bragged that other institutions like the military also supported his revolution.
Chavez was asked in a recent press conference with foreign media if he would try to incorporate the alienated opposition into politics if he wins on December 3rd, which most polls are predicting he will, by a margin of 15 to 20%. He replied that his government didn't intentionally exclude anyone, saying it was the opposition's own fault they didn't have representation in the legislature after they organized the election boycott last year. "I ask the sectors of the opposition to assume their democratic responsibilities," he said.
Many Venezuelans wish both political camps would take that advice to heart, but clearly they have a long way to go.