Reflections on the Opposition’s Petition Drive

Professor Michael Lebowitz, who is in Venezuela to observe the opposition's petition drive, provides some reflections on the context in which the petition drive is taking place.

November 26

Chavez, the Media, and the Petition Drive

            One of the interesting signs of the struggle and balance of forces at this point was displayed by Chavez at his speech for the inauguration of the Congreso bolivariano de los Pueblos last night. This was a congress initiated by Argentinean supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution, who are committed both to the social character of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and to Bolivar’s vision of a united Latin America; it drew upon participants from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. In the opening of Chavez’s speech, he stressed that during the last week, political parties which are supporting the government had attempted to purchase advertisements on the private TV stations and had been refused. Chavez had asked them to respect the Constitution and the law, and he asked for a reply by the time of his speech. It was not forthcoming. So, his reply was to call for a ‘chain’— to use his power under the law (preceding him) to broadcast on all TV stations at once. And, he announced to the Congress (to cheers) that his speech was being carried on all stations at that point. He proceeded to ask what kind of democracy was possible if the private stations could exclude advertising from parties that they rejected. (Imagine, he asked, if a company wanted to introduce a new product and couldn’t buy advertising on stations for some reasons! How could they communicate its existence?) If the private media could exclude the advertising of particular political parties, then they would be living under a dictatorship— the dictatorship of the private media. So, Chavez called upon the private stations to respect the law and the Constitution, and he called upon the electoral commission (CNE) to enforce the law. If it didn’t, he said he would use the powers available to him under the law. This ‘chain’ was clearly an announcement to the country of what he intends to do if the private stations continue to refuse to accept paid advertising from Chavez supporters in this period leading up to the firmazo– the signature gathering campaign beginning on Friday (and extending to Monday).

            Another aspect of Chavez’s speech was his discussion of some initial results of the campaign just completed to recall 38 opponents in the legislature. Apparently, it went very well— with well over the 20% of the required signatures gathered in the 4 days past in several cases and the signatures obtained to have recall referenda for 37. In fact, he joked about how the polls in some un-named centers indicated very little support for him (eg, less than 24%) and yet over 50 % of the electorate there had just signed to remove his opponents. The initial report is that over 4 million signatures had been collected, and that in some cases over twice as many recall signatures than the legislators had received in votes had just been collected.

            Other notes of interest indicating tension: a Cuban doctor working in the barrio was murdered yesterday when he was providing healthcare in his home. The report at this point is that it was a robbery but tension was very high because of the fear that it was politically inspired. Also yesterday, 5 armed and masked men attacked an air force base where jet fighters are; in the gun fight that occurred, they escaped.

            I noted that there had been an eerie calm with the state TV stations inviting opposition figures for discussions. All this is being denounced now as a trick by opposition people (who are criticizing oppositionists for going on state TV). The International Press Institute has a delegation in Venezuela to observe developments. In a statement which appears in today’s eluniversal.com, Jorge Fascetto, president of IPI,  stated:

“Our organizations, specially the Inter-American Press Association, has been visiting Venezuela during the last few years. We know perfectly what is going on in Venezuela. We know the good climate we have seen in these three, four, five days… We know what it is for; it is intended to deceive many people. We want a fair play (during the collection of signatures endorsing a presidential recall petition), that is all.”

Workers and the Petition Drive

            There have been rumours that in private industry (largely unorganised) workers would be taken to the signature tables by their supervisors to sign up in the ‘Reafirmazo’ to generate a recall of Chavez. (It is called the RE-signing because of the opposition claim that their unsupervised and constitutionally premature sign-up last February was the first firmazo.) There is some rather concrete evidence, though, that the pressures upon private sector workers will be intense.

            I have just been shown a card by a leader of UNT (the National Union of Workers, the new trade union federation formed in August). This nicely embossed a card for the “reafirmazo’  has a place for the bearer’s name and signature and a place where this card is to be stamped. It is being given by private sector employers to their workers. The card reads (roughly translated): ‘Today I have left my signature and my hello for history, as demonstration of my desire and will to look for a peaceful, democratic and electoral exit to the crisis of the country.’ What will happen to workers whose card is NOT stamped is anyone’s guess. The real point is that the pressure being placed upon workers in the private sector is clear. We can say with certainty that no such pressure was placed upon public sector workers this last week because we definitely would have heard about it.

            This is news that needs to be spread— especially to trade unionists who will recognise what such a card represents. Also, it is essential to ensure that international observers watch for this.

November 27

        I’ve learned an important lesson about monitoring opposition websites– if you see something interesting, copy it immediately because history gets rewritten here. I noted yesterday that Chavez had called upon the electoral commission (CNE) to enforce the law to ensure access of pro-government parties to be able to advertise on the private media channels (and that he had vowed to use his power to use the ‘chains’ for access to the private stations otherwise). When I looked this morning at eluniversal.com, I found that they reported that the CNE had ruled that each channel (including the state channel) must provide a daily total of 72 minutes for each side– 2 minutes on each side for the Chavist legislators who are being challenged and 2 for Chavez. That information has now disappeared. It is replaced by a new item, which explains what the stations have decided to do (out of the goodness of their hearts):

The Venezuelan private TV networks have vowed to broadcast advertising spots supporting or rejecting an impending collection of signatures to demand recall votes against President Hugo Chávez and pro-government lawmakers for free, representatives of TV channels Radio Caracas Televisión, Globovisión, and Venevisión.

“We have agreed to broadcast free of charge any propaganda (ruling party) MVR wants to air, (provided) it complies with regulations of the National Electoral Council. We are vowing to broadcast President (Chávez’) electoral party spots for free, and we have offered to do the same with (the opposition umbrella group) Democratic Coordinator, opposition groups and President Chávez,” said Marcel Granier, president of Grupo 1BC, which owns RCTV. Granier was accompanied by Víctor Ferreres (Venevisión), and Alberto Federico Ravell (Globovisión).

        Further on the cards that workers in the private sector are being given by their employers to bring to the signature tables: the state TV station has been filled with coverage of this today, but the only sign of it on the private stations that I’ve seen was from the coverage of an announcement late last night by the UNT leader who had shown me the card. Among the companies distributing the card are one of the leading banks (Banco Mercantil) and Coca Cola. How to protect unorganized workers in this situation is, of course, very difficult; one government deputy called upon workers who have received such a card to sign the petition and get their card stamped (in order to protect themselves) and then to go to a table elsewhere to sign again (thereby invalidating their signature). It’s neither clear that this strategy has been thought out well nor that there is a feasible alternative at this point that can protect individual workers.

Michael Lebowitz is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada