Caracas, Venezuela, December 15, 2005—Carlos Ortega, one of the lead organizers of a lockout meant to topple the democratically-elected government of Venezuela, was sentenced Tuesday to almost 16 years in jail for civil rebellion, treason, inciting illegal acts, and possession of false documents.
The first three charges were related to his actions during the 2002-03 oil industry shutdown, when, as president of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, he called on Venezuelans to oust President Hugo Chavez Frías. The last charge was for possessing false identity documents that enabled him to return illegally to Venezuela from asylum in Costa Rica.
Ortega was also a leading figure in the brief April 2002 coup, which replaced the president with the head of the chamber of commerce, and dissolved the National Assembly, Supreme Court, and constitution.
Many opposition leaders, some of whom themselves were supporters of the oil strike and short-lived coup, called the conviction anti-democratic and a violation of human rights. “Today President Hugo Chávez imposed a debt to Venezuelan democrats,” said National Assembly deputy Edgar Zambrano of the opposition party Acción Democratica. “Today Hugo Chávez sentenced Carlos Ortega to prison for 15 years for the crime of exercising his political and constitutional rights, for the crime of being democratic, for the crime of opposing his government.”
Primero Justica deputy Gerardo Blyde echoed these accusations. “Whoever it occurs to in the country to try to organize a march, a protest, a strike, which is a fundamental human right, can run the same fate as Mr. Carlos Ortega, who, simply as the leader of CTV, the most important union in the country, called for a peaceful country-wide strike,” he said.
Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) President Omar Mora Díaz disputed both the accusation that the decision demonstrated a lack of separation of powers, and that it interfered with the right to strike. “A strike with labor purposes intended to achieve labor vindications is different from a strike with an insurrectionary nature, such as to overthrow a government," he said.
"The judge, based on allegations and evidence in the file, found that the crime of rebellion was committed. This is different from strike. Strike is a constitutional right, but it has to be exercised under the limits set forth under the constitution and the laws," Mora Díaz added.
In Venezuela, as in the United States, people can legally strike to improve wages and working conditions, but not to advocate for governmental change.
Other government party members also supported the decision. “The conviction of one of the authors of the coup attempt involving the oil economic strike, who is now behind bars should set an example," said MVR National Assembly deputy William Lara.
Ortega and the 2002-03 Lock Out and 2002 Coup
In early December of 2003, Ortega, in his capacity as president of CTV, called for a general strike to pressure for the president’s resignation. Days later, he announced that the strike would last indefinitely, until the president resigned, saying, “The only solution is [Chávez’s] ouster.”
Though he had been elected in 2001 as the president of CTV, he had lost credibility among some workers through his failure to support of wage increase and non-layoff laws, and his alliance with Pedro Carmona, head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Congress and two-day coup dictator. As a result, none of the state-owned oil company’s five unions supported the strike, including Fedepetrol, a union of which Ortega had recently been president. He therefore had to rely largely on an administrative employee strike, management lockout, and sabotage, to shutdown the oil industry.
Even as he lost support in these sectors, he steadfastly called for the cessation of business, until Chávez’s resignation. “If some sectors of the opposition, business sectors or political sectors, think they can save themselves from this regime by easing the strike, they are totally mistaken,” he said in the last days of the strike.
The strike succeeded in temporarily weakening the Venezuelan economy. Oil production slowed to a near standstill, the economy shrunk by 9 percent in 2003, and, over the same period, unemployment jumped 7 percentage points. The economy has since recovered. Oil production, according to the government, has as well. In fact, officials have noted, the company is now running more efficiently with a smaller workforce, due to the firings of mostly administrative employees in the wake of the strike. PdVSA had had an inflated workforce because of a decades old non-layoff pact implemented when three oil enterprises merged to form the company. Government critics say oil production is still well below pre-strike levels.
Ortega was also one of the major participants in the April 2002 coup. In the months before the coup, he had widely been discussed as Chávez’s likely successor, according to media reports. Later, when it was clear that he would play no major role in the coup government, he told a CTV media advisor, according to the St. Petersburg Times, "This all died for me. The fat cats hijacked it. But [Carmona] will fall."
But his most prominent role, as in the December oil lockout, was his call for a general strike, however, this time he couched it as a labor dispute. “We want to dismiss [the misconception] that the CTV…has the intention of weakening the government. What we are asking of the government is to comply with the collective bargaining agreements,” he said.
However, he called a crowd of demonstrators to descend on the presidential palace saying, “You, [Chávez], have wasted the resources of the state and now this human river will go towards Miraflores to demand your resignation.” Later he also said, “Death to the tyrant!”
After being charged for his role in the economic strike, Ortega fled to the Embassy of Costa Rica where he was granted asylum on the condition that he not make public declarations against the Venezuelan government. He broke this condition twice in speeches calling Chávez a dictator. In the second speech, which took place in Miama, Ortega said, “I will return to Venezuela. . . in secret, to fight for the liberation of Venezuela.”
Venezuelan National Assembly members also released a tape, where Ortega appeared to be talking about planning a civil rebellion. "We are going to need about 10, 12 or 15 years of dictatorship to rescue the country, I have no problem with that," said Ortega on the tapes.
Costa Rica withdrew its offer of asylum, and Ortega returned to Venezuela using false documents in order to avoid arrest.
Through the trial, Ortega has maintained his innocence. After Tuesday’s conviction, he spoke to opposition television station Globovision. “From prison, I’ll keep working, I’ll keep fighting to preserve the freedom, democracy and unity of the people,” he said. “I didn’t betray my country.”