The Bosses’ Strike in Venezuela, and the New York Times

by Andy Pollack and George Saunders


The New York Times article below (of Dec. 30) is really a textbook case on how superficially “objective” accounts can in fact be completely one-sided. (We would recommend this as an example for progressive teachers to use in the classroom.) Take these quotes:

“They [the upper-class opposition] say the government’s efforts to restore operations at the state-owned oil company have shown that Mr. Chávez was unwilling to negotiate a compromise in the current crisis. They say it leaves them no alternative but to keep up their strike in hopes that the Chávez government will run out of gas — literally and politically — within the next two weeks.”

And:

“Many say that without a negotiated settlement between Mr. Chávez and his opponents, it may be impossible to stamp out the rage and suspicions generated by the highly charged verbiage from both sides of this political conflict.”

In plain English, what the New York Times is saying (on behalf of the bosses and their attempt to shut down the Venezuelan economy) is this:

How unfair, how undemocratic, of Chavez not to admit defeat! The bosses’ strike was launched to force him to “compromise” and “mediate” (i.e., to resign), and since he won’t, the bosses will just have to up the ante!

In the real world one doesn’t start a battle like this, aimed at paralyzing the entire economy, just to force compromise or mediation—one does so to force the opponent to surrender. The problem for these Venezuelan “contras” is that the workers and poor people of Venezuela are refusing to surrender!

The text of the Dec. 30 Times article follows, with occasional bracketed comments.


Venezuela Strikers Keep Pressure on Chávez and Oil Exports

By GINGER THOMPSON

CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 29 — Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets here today to declare their commitment to a national strike, now in its 28th day, to force the ouster of President Hugo Chávez.

The strike, joined by an estimated 30,000 oil workers, threatens to wreak havoc on this nation, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, for months to come. It has stopped the oil exports that generate about 80 percent of Venezuela’s foreign revenue and 50 percent of government funds.

In recent days, the strike has reached a kind of stalemate. Mr. Chávez is using nonstriking workers to try to normalize operations at the state-owned oil company.

[Not that some workers are refusing to strike but that “Chavez is using” them.]

 His opponents, led by a coalition of business and labor leaders, contend, though, that their strike will push the company, and thus the Chávez government, to collapse.

In an interview today, Horacio Medina, president of a group of striking oil managers, …

[It is the “oil managers” who are striking, but supposedly there is an equal coalition of “business and labor leaders.” Guess who has the driver’s seat in this coalition, business or labor? The president of the oil managers, Medina, speaks for them.]

…said that the first 10 days of the new year would be decisive. He said the opposition leaders would turn up the pressure on the Chávez government by urging their followers to conduct campaigns of civil disobedience, like refusing to pay taxes.

“The only solution” is for Mr. Chávez “to resign,” he said. “People are still willing to stay out of work for many more days.”

[How’s that for compromise and mediation?  “The only solution” is for Chávez resign.” And how’s that for democracy? Chávez has been elected twice by the poor of Venezuela, who are the overwhelming majority.]

Each day that passes, however, seems to strengthen Mr. Chávez’s resolve to ride out this latest and most explosive political storm.

[How stubborn and unreasonable!]

 He has been able to keep gasoline trickling to the pumps in Venezuela. Almost daily television broadcasts show him speaking at important gas and oil installations, boasting that his government has not been weakened by the strike.

Mr. Chávez, a former paratrooper, speaks like a man at war. He describes his opponents as “traitors” and “coup plotters,” who are using oil to overthrow the government without regard for the devastating economic impact of their strike.

[A pretty fair statement of the situation.]

He has promised that supplies of gasoline will be restored by mid-January. Once operations at the state-owned oil company recover, he contends, the opposition will run out of cards to play.

“Any card they play is a card that will be burned,” he said, “because we have popular force. We have military force. We have moral force. We have reason on our side.”

Opposition leaders acknowledge that the oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, has become the principal battlefield and that Mr. Chávez has proved a more resilient foe than even their most pessimistic predictions anticipated.

[An elected government defends itself against an attempt by the employing class to shut down the economy. How to describe that with some loaded phrase? Ah yes, “resilient foe.”]

They say the government’s efforts to restore operations at the state-owned oil company have shown that Mr. Chávez was unwilling to negotiate a compromise in the current crisis. They say it leaves them no alternative but to keep up their strike in hopes that the Chávez government will run out of gas — literally and politically — within the next two weeks.

As shortages of gasoline become even more acute, opposition leaders calculated, the pressure on the streets will be too powerful for Mr. Chávez to ignore.

“I do not see how they can stabilize this situation,” Mr. Medina said. “Things are only going to get worse, and when they do, Chávez will have to negotiate.”

Many say that without a negotiated settlement between Mr. Chávez and his opponents, it may be impossible to stamp out the rage and suspicions generated by the highly charged verbiage from both sides of this political conflict.

[Again, what kind of negotiated settlement can there be when the bosses are saying “the only solution” is for Chavez to resign?]


Venezuela’s Other Oil Workers

The previous day’s New York Times (Dec. 29) showed that many Venezuelan oil workers are stepping in to keep the oil industry running despite the managers’ strike.

Some of the key passages in the article are these:

“Most of the refinery’s supervisors [!] abandoned Petróleos de Venezuela, which pumps the lifeblood of the nation’s economy, to join the strike that is aimed at forcing the ouster of President Hugo Chávez.” (Emphasis added.)  That is, it’s asupervisors’ strike, not a workers’ strike.

The Times admits that rank-and-file workers have brought the Puerto la Cruz refinery up to 70 percent of normal production.

“Almost all high-level executives at the plant joined the strike. But officials said fewer than 20 percent of the operators, mechanics and technicians walked off the job. (Emphasis added.)

“We are prouder now than ever,” said Wilfredo Bastardo, a 17-year oil veteran. “We have shown our supervisors that we can run this plant without them.”

In other words, more than 80 percent (!) of rank-and-file workers stayed on the job. And they have shown they can run the plant without the bosses!

The full text of the Dec. 29 Times article (again with some bracketed comments) is as follows:

Trickle of Oil Starts Flowing in Venezuela

By GINGER THOMPSON

PUERTO LA CRUZ, Venezuela, Dec. 28 — Nearly a month into Venezuela’s devastating national strike, all systems were back up and running close to normal this week at the refinery here that supplies gasoline to the eastern half of this country. Night shift workers were bursting with the pride of war heroes.

Félix Deliso, who has worked at Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company, for 12 years, stood watch over a console with so many blinking buttons and computer screens that it looked like the bridge of a spaceship. Mr. Deliso monitors 3,000 machines and processes that turn crude oil into gasoline. Though he has a high school education, he has been trained to be a specialist here, and he considers his job as delicate as disarming a live bomb.

Politics made his job even more explosive four weeks ago in this country, which is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer. Most of the refinery’s supervisors abandoned Petróleos de Venezuela, which pumps the lifeblood of the nation’s economy, to join the strike that is aimed at forcing the ouster of President Hugo Chávez.

Operations at the company, a chief supplier of oil to the United States, ground to a halt. With support for Mr. Chávez strongest among the country’s poorer residents, rank-and-file workers like Mr. Deliso weighed their options.

“We decided to stay on the job,” he said, “Some of us are Chavistas. Some are anti-Chavistas. But here, there are no politics.”

“Basically we are Venezuelans,” added Cipriano Hernández, who also has worked at the company for 12 years. “We love our country and we do not want to see it fall.”

With skeleton crews working lots of overtime, Mr. Chávez is getting gasoline trickling back into Venezuela’s pumps. Officials here said that since the beginning of last week, this refinery had produced 60,000 barrels of gasoline a day, about 70 percent its normal capacity and almost a fourth of the 225,000 barrels normally consumed by this country each day.

Still, with domestic shortages mounting over the last month, the gasoline produced here is only a drop in the bucket of Venezuela’s needs. The country remains far from recovering its export capabilities, which provide up to 80 percent of its foreign currency. Economic aftershocks are expected through the first few months of next year.

Strike leaders charged that the government’s assertions of an industrial rebirth were little more than a mirage. They contend that the overwhelming majority of oil workers have stayed off the job and that Mr. Chávez is using inexperienced workers to staff gas and oil installations, risking accidents.

Lines stretch for miles outside most gas stations across the country, sharply contradicting Mr. Chávez’s claims that gas supplies are returning to normal. Shortages of food and medicine have stirred comparisons to Cuba. Tens of thousands of people march almost every day to denounce Mr. Chávez.

As the national strike drags into another week, battle lines have been drawn at the nation’s gas pumps. Mr. Chávez’s beleaguered opponents renewed calls for their followers, especially 35,000 oil workers, to stay off the job. Meanwhile Mr. Chávez struggled in the face of gale-force political winds that have swept the country to get the paralyzed oil industry crawling again.

“They thought they could impose their illegitimate will on this country, but they were wrong,” said Alí Rodríguez, president of Petróleos de Venezuela, referring to the strike leaders. Then he heaped praise on the workers standing before him. “Because of loyal workers like you, the enemy is being defeated.”

After suspending at least 90 striking executives, Mr. Chávez assigned new management teams to take over crucial oil installations. In raucous meetings with oil workers in recent days, Mr. Rodríguez called the executives “traitors to the nation,” and said the government would press criminal charges.

The refineries at El Palito, just east of here, are expected to be operating at 70 percent of capacity within a week.

The government also regained control of several Venezuelan tankers anchored off the coast by striking crews. In the region that gave birth to this country’s oil industry around Lake Maracaibo, 22 million gallons of gasoline were unloaded from the tanker Pilín León, which had been stranded for nearly three weeks.

“We have made a situation that seemed impossible, possible,” said Edgar Ortiz, 46, the leader of a union representing gas truck drivers in the Lake Maracaibo region. “The crisis has not ended. But the government is finding solutions.”

The refinery here at balmy Puerto La Cruz has become a showcase of the government’s comeback. Almost all high-level executives at the plant joined the strike. But officials said fewer than 20 percent of the operators, mechanics and technicians walked off the job.

“We are prouder now than ever,” said Wilfredo Bastardo, a 17-year oil veteran. “We have shown our supervisors that we can run this plant without them.”

International oil analysts, however, are describing Mr. Chávez’s gains in gasoline production as a quick fix that delays progress on more fundamental long-term challenges. Most of the nation’s oil wells remain closed, as does its largest refining complex, at Paraguaná, which can refine one million barrels of crude oil a day. Analysts report that in the four weeks since the start of the strike, oil exports fromVenezuela dropped from 2.5 million barrels a day to less than 2 million barrels last month, sending oil prices rising above $32 a barrel.

Fareed Mohamedi, an economist with PFC Energy, a consulting firm in Washington, said that in the wake of this political crisis, Venezuelan oil customers might decide to take their business elsewhere.

Still, political analysts said, it appears that Mr. Chávez remains determined to ride out the storm. Winning the support of oil workers is a crucial part of his strategy. In a ceremony on Friday, he gave out medals to about 60 oil workers and said that strikers are traitors.

“They wanted to stab the heart of Venezuela,” he said. “But thousands of workers have come to save the country from their premeditated attack.”

Mr. Chávez has agreed to negotiate with the business and labor representatives who lead the opposition. But sources close to the talks said that it had become clear that both sides intended to fight to the political death.

After a meeting with Mr. Chávez last week, the American ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, said the risk of violence was rising daily. Meanwhile, the night crew at Puerto La Cruz downed espresso and tried to make light of the tension. The maintenance chief, with 32 years on the job, joked that he was one of the “inexperienced workers” whom foes of Mr. Chávez called a threat to the company’s security. Other workers faked Cuban accents to poke fun at charges by opponents that Mr. Chávez had allowed Communist workers to infiltrate oil installations. Then they talked about about their colleagues who had joined the strike.

“To me, this is a political fight,” said Willians Arevalo, operations manager at Puerto La Cruz. “I have participated in many strikes, to demand better pay or better conditions. But I don’t think I should use my job to try to force out the president.”