November 25, 2002
This strike doesn’t have a chance…
The big news these days is that, last week, the coordinadora democrática (the big umbrella group that speaks for maybe 95% of the opposition) called a General Strike for next Monday, December 2nd. It’s all anyone talks about around here, especially since they didn’t specify how long the strike will go on for – and they’ve let it be known it could drag on indefinitely. Now, I think up until now the coordinadora has done a pretty good job of representing the opposition responsibly and within the spirit of democracy. But this time, I really think they’ve gone off the deep end.
Why? Well, first and foremost because the strike will fail. It’s totally nuts to call an indefinite strike in the middle of the holiday shopping season: too many retailers and industrialists rely on December sales to balance their books for the year – especially after a disaster of a year like 2002 has been. Asking them to give up a week’s worth of holiday sales seems totally crazy to me: they won’t go along, couldn’t go along, will go bankrupt if they go along…it’s asking them to jump into some sort of sacrificial pyre for the sake for very uncertain results.
The strike’s only hope for success is if the opposition can shut down the oil-industry. And while many executives and managers at PDVSA seem ripe for protest, it’s very doubtful whether the blue-collar workforce, fresh from signing a very lucrative collective bargaining agreement, will go along. Can you run a giant oil company for a week without any managers? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I bet the it’s something along the lines of “not very well, but kind of.”
The coordinadora leaders claim they’re just following their followers: to hear them tell it, the grass-roots pressure for some kind of radical move against Chávez is just too strong to ignore. I hear that and I just have to shake my head: I have no doubt that among a very small, highly radicalized, militantly antichavista slice of the business class, there are probably some very loud voices calling for a strike. And credible polls do show that most people support a strike in the abstract. But from that to saying that there’s a deafening national roar for a strike there’s a big gap, and I suspect what’s really going on here is that most coordinadora members only talk to other coordinadora members, setting up a little resonance chamber where radical antichavismo is taken as the only sane way of thinking. Locked up inside this circle, the coordinadora’s leadership has managed to convince itself that its views are a reflection of a huge popular groundswell. I don’t buy it.
Of course many many Venezuelans are very very angry at Chávez. But 9 out of 10 Venezuelan households live on less than the $750/month it takes to purchase the Basic Consumption Basket – the government’s estimates of the basic goods and services you need for an adequate middle-class life. With that many people struggling that hard to make ends meet, and so many who just don’t earn enough to even feed themselves and their families properly, an open ended general strike seems like lunacy. For the upper class and upper-middle class people who lead the coordinadora , calling a strike will not mean going hungry, but for millions of the people they claim to lead it does. And it’s precisely that tone-deafness towards the needs and conditions of the poor that made the poor angry enough at them to elect Chávez in the first place. I dunno, I just think that by calling a strike the coordinadora shows just how out of touch it is with the material conditions that most Venezuelans live under, and does nothing at all to reassure the poor that a coordinadora-led government would be even a little bit concerned about their needs.
Still, the strike need not happen. The coordinadora has made it quite clear that if the Elections Authorities call a national referendum on Chávez’s rule before Monday, they’ll call off the strike. I’m praying CNE plays along, thus saving the coordinadora from itself. At that point, the strike can be kept in reserve, as a threat against the government should it even think to do anything to block a vote. If the government did block a vote, a strike – while still far more socially painful than the coordinadora leaders seem to realize – would at least be somewhat more defensible. And while it’s easy to sympathize with the seething anger people feel when they see Chávez openly mock the two-million+ signatures gathered to back up the request for a consultative referendum, I don’t see how the way to confront that is applying a tactic that condemns millions of people to real hardship…instead, it seems like a sure-fire strategy for alienating the people we should be trying to win over.