Mérida, March 25th 2009 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – As Venezuela’s President Chávez followed through on the decision to transfer control of the nation’s ports and airports to the national government this week, a group of opposition officials from several regions of the country have declared themselves in “rebellion” against the measure, and called for a consultative referendum on the issue.
The National Assembly reformed the Law on Decentralization, Limitation, and Transfer of Public Power two weeks ago to allow the national government to take control of ports, airports, and highways that had deteriorated and become dominated by drug trafficking and contraband mafias, according to government officials.
Last week, the National Guard occupied the Port of Maracaibo, in Zulia state, and Puerto Cabello in Carabobo state, and this week, with authorization from the National Assembly, national officials initiated the transfer of airports in Táchira, Miranda, and Nueva Esparta, states which elected opposition governors last November.
All 17 governors from the PSUV have collaborated with the transfer of the transportation hubs. Governor Tarek William Saab of Anzoátegui state said the turnover of the state’s airport Saturday “forms part of a national reunification plan that will strengthen us and develop the nation because the country was fractured.”
President Hugo Chávez signed a decree Wednesday to create national companies to administer the ports and airports. “This is a process of great strategic importance for us to continue constructing the new Venezuela, the new geo-politics. Now a truly national ports plan will be elaborated,” said Chávez.
“We now have a challenge: To recuperate the ports and airports and make them more efficient in the service of the national cause, and to get rid of the thieves, drug traffickers and contraband mafias,” said Chávez.
The president also issued a stern warning to opposition leaders in the states along the border with Colombia that they should drop any plans for regional autonomy, because the majority of Venezuelans are in favor of the PSUV and the Chávez administration.
“These regional strongmen pretend to set up a little republic within the republic. They pretend to convert the western border into a half-moon autonomy,” said Chávez, using the term that had previously been used to describe the crescent-shaped eastern provinces of Bolivia, where the elite opposition to Evo Morales staged a violent separatist movement last year.
Last May, legislators in Zulia state, which produces a third of Venezuela’s daily oil exports, introduced a feasibility study for increased regional autonomy and explicitly compared their initiative to the separatist movement in the resource-rich eastern provinces of Bolivia.
Now, Venezuela’s five opposition governors, along with the mayor of Greater Caracas and other top opposition leaders have organized a group of approximately 80 state and local officials from several regions of Venezuela to support a “rebellion,” which they characterize as a “legitimate democratic resistance” in defense of the national Constitution.
State legislators in Zulia declared a state of emergency last week to oppose the centralization of the transportation hubs, and on Tuesday they voted 11 to 4 to submit a formal request to the National Electoral Council (CNE) to organize a state-wide referendum to consult voters on the issue.
“We are going to consult the sovereign people so that they decide who they want to manage the ports, the highways, the airports, and the bridges: The regional or the national government,” declared Eliseo Fermín, the president of the Zulia Legislative Council.
Legislator Alejandro Silva declared, “If what you want is a rebellion, well that’s what you’ll get.”
Article 79 of the Constitution says a consultative referendum on national matters may be convoked by the president, the National Assembly, or by petition of 10% of registered voters, and a consultative referendum on regional or local matters may be convoked by the governor or mayor, the state or local legislative council, or 10% of voters in the jurisdiction.
The CNE has not publicly responded to the referendum request.
Meanwhile, fourteen of the PSUV city mayors in Zulia state declared their intention to “maintain the governability” of the state if Governor Pablo Pérez and his allies attempt to disobey the transfer of the ports and airports to the national government.
PSUV Legislator José Luis Acosta, representing the minority in the Zulia state legislature, criticized the opposition legislators for using traditional cultural icons of the Zulia region to promote their political discourse, and called their plans “irresponsible.”
Acosta also told the opposition legislators that the transfer will clear up the accounting of the ports and airports and “now Zulia will know how many resources you robbed” by treating the port and airport budgets as a “petty cash drawer” since the administration of the ports and airports was previously transferred from the national to the state governments two decades ago.
Likewise, workers at Zulia’s main port and airport who are members of the National Worker’s Union (UNT), declared their support for the administrative centralization, saying their labor rights and collective contracts have been violated by the state administration.
The Chávez administration says it supports a decentralization of power directly from the national government to local organized communities, instead of transferring power through state and municipal administrations, which are often corrupt and have not effectively managed the nation’s transportation hubs.