Caracas, November 16, 2004—Representatives from Venezuela’s largest chamber of commerce, Fedecámaras, met with Vice-President José Vincente Rangel yesterday, in a meeting that both sides have described as productive and encouraging. Discussions centered on the creation of employment and the importance of cooperation between the two groups, addressing themes ranging from poverty and security, to respect for private property.
“The way to fight poverty is to generate employment,” noted second Vice-President of Fedecámaras Alexis Esteban Sánchez. “The Government has told us that they want a partnership with employers,” he continued, “and the employers have responded that we are ready to support this idea in order to extricate Venezuela from its current situation. From here we are moving forward.”
Relations between the employer federation and the government have been strained at best, since the group joined with the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) to spearhead a series of general strikes from 2001-2003, demanding the resignation of President Hugo Chávez. In April 2002 one of these general strikes culminated in a 48-hour coup in which then-president of Fedecámaras, Pedro Carmona Estanga, was declared provisional President of Venezuela. The coup was quickly reversed by massive popular mobilization aided by loyal elements of the military, and Carmona fled to neighboring Colombia.
In 2003 Fedecámaras once again allied itself with the CTV to bring oil production to a halt in a last-ditch attempt to bring Chávez to his knees. Sabotage and the ravages of the two-month slowdown caused the economy to contract violently as a result, though the strike eventually disintegrated when it became clear that Chávez would not resign.
In the course of their current dialogue with the Vice-President’s office, Fedecámaras has proposed a national amnesty for business leaders currently under investigation by the government for supporting the coup. It is not clear whether the amnesty would benefit only specific leaders, would be universal, or whether it would be expected in either case to apply in such a sensitive and high-profile case as Carmona’s.
Last August’s unsuccessful recall referendum against Chávez and the impressive showing of Chavista candidates in the October 31st regional elections have tipped the political scales in the country solidly in the government’s favor. As a result, they have been in an advantageous negotiating position, and rather than squandering it, the government has reached out to sectors of the opposition as part of a professed strategy of reconciliation. Thus, a personal meeting between Chávez and Venezuelan media mogul Gustavo Cisneros on the eve of the referendum; and a series of meetings with smaller chamber of commerce federations over the past two months credited with laying the groundwork for this week’s negotiations with Fedecámaras.
“It was a frank, cordial and sincere dialogue,” noted Esteban, “because the Vice-President took care to suggest to us that everyone express themselves honestly, because from this moment on we must work in a cooperative manner to reconstruct Venezuela.”Such dialogue provides a welcome change to both sides, after previous attempts at finding common ground degenerated into heated public exchanges between Vice-President José Vincent Rangel and Fedecáras president Albis Muñoz. Today Muñoz speaks highly of the current negotiations, noting “the Government’s efforts to open their space for dialogue, and the willingness of employers to respond to this call, create a climate of trust that promotes investment.”