TOPICS > Politics

Divided Nation

May 31, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, has provoked devotion and opposition in almost equal amounts among the country’s 24 million citizens. He was briefly overthrown last month in a coup after a massive protest march through the streets of the capital city, Caracas. (Gunfire) Shooting broke out as the march neared the national palace. No one is sure yet which side fired first, and at least 17 people were killed.

Military officers blamed President Chavez for the violence, and forced him out of office. But after 48 hours, he was back in power. This man, Juan Fernandez, stood at the center of last month’s events. The huge protest march that ended in a coup began as a demonstration of solidarity for Fernandez and six of his colleagues who had been fired by President Chavez from the state- owned oil company just weeks before.

JUAN FERNANDEZ, PDVSA Oil Executive: Everybody was… everybody were on the street. I mean, amazing, because I never thought of so many people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, called PDVSA, employs 40,000 people and provides about 50 percent of government revenues in Venezuela. It’s a state company, but it has historically kept a distance from Venezuela’s various governments, and it is widely respected around the world for its efficient management. Chavez named several political allies to the presidency and board of the company, and Fernandez decided its survival as an independent entity was at stake.

JUAN FERNANDEZ: Our careers are in danger. The company is in danger. So everybody… and it’s amazing, because in the situation that we… that we had in the last month, everybody from the top executive to the last worker at the refinery over at the production side, we were gathered together in order to defend our company from that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chavez had made oil a key part of his government strategy from the time he took office in 1999. He held a summit of OPEC heads of state, which breathed new life into the cartel. Oil prices had gone down, and at Chavez’s urging, OPEC called for large cuts in production. As a result, petroleum prices rose to $30 a barrel and money poured into Venezuela as the value of its exports, more than half of which go to the United States, shot up.

Partly with this money, Chavez developed programs aimed at poor people like these women, Hedy Perdomo, Lucy Romero, and Eneda Avila. They said they’re avid Chavez supporters because his government’s programs help their town, Los Guayos, which is about two hours west of Caracas. Each woman owns her own home, built and paid for by the government, for the first time ever. Many of the people in Los Guayos had lost rented homes in floods in Caracas, and the government earmarked special funds to help them. Working as members of a Bolivarian circle, a pro-Chavez grassroots organization promoted by the president, the women have gotten government funding for a series of self-help programs in Los Guayos.

On the day we visited, unemployed people were taking cooking classes. Once they learned the skills, they would be eligible for micro-credits– small government loans– if they wanted to get a pushcart and sell what they cooked or open a small cafe. Eneda Avila, who cares for a daughter who had polio, got one of those loans.

ENEDA AVILA (Translated): One-hundred thirty nine mothers were given micro-credits last December from the industrial bank of Venezuela. I work in open-air markets selling fruits. With the income I earn from the food sales, I buy the medicine to treat my daughter’s illness. So I thank the president and always ask God to bless and care for him, wherever he goes. (Siren blaring)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The government has also provided medical care here, building several small clinics, and constructed a new school. The women said these are a first for them, too.

HEDY PERDOMO (Translated): We have health, homes, education. Before, children had to pay to go to school, and now they pay nothing at all to enroll.

LUCY ROMERO (Translated): I’m a woman who had cancer of the uterus and was taken care of by a government program, thanks to President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias. Today I feel pretty well. My tumor has completely disappeared with much force and a desire to move forward. I can’t stand to hear the constant lying about this president who has helped the poor.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chavez may have helped the poor in Los Guayos, but there’s much debate in Venezuela over whether his programs have had any measurable impact on poverty nationwide. Public spending did go up in the early years of his presidency, and the economy grew.

But the price of oil dropped last year, and investment slowed as Chavez’s domestic and foreign policies, particularly his very public friendship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, scared investors. The economy began to slide, and government revenues fell precipitously, making it difficult to expand on social programs like these in Los Guayos. The president’s supporters say he wanted his people in control of the state oil company, PDVSA, to assure that petroleum resources would be used for the good of the country in a time of economic downturn. Chavez believed PDVSA had become a state within a state and needed to be reined in.

Chavez’s opponents like Juan Fernandez like Juan Fernandez say the president put his cronies in positions of power at PDVSA to enable the government to milk the oil company to fund programs aimed at buying off the poor.

JUAN FERNANDEZ: I think there is a sense of that in the government, that PDVSA is, you know, like, you know, an infinite site of income. And PDVSA right now– and I’m very, very serious on this– cannot solve all the problems of this country. We are not able to… we would like to, but we are not able to do that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so executives of the oil company went on the offensive, holding rallies at PDVSA offices. Juan Fernandez and his colleagues also began gathering support from the outside.

JUAN FERNANDEZ: And we decided to go outside. So we talked to the unions, we talked to the private sector, we talked to what we call here the civil society, you know. We talked… we went to… to talk to people, the students, to universities, to everybody who was in somehow what we call the shareholder of the company. And we received an enormous support on our effort.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In December last year, oil executives and workers went on strike, and the nation’s largest labor confederation called a general strike in support. Economic analyst Roberto Bottome:

ROBERTO BOTTOME, Economist: And so the first time Venezuelans in general, and particularly Venezuelans in the middle class, began to understand what was at… going on in oil, and sensing how important it was to us as a nation. And that’s what helped build up this tremendous public protest, and this… which eventually… well, first, it was, as I say, “President, please change.” Then it became, “President, please, please go.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chavez struck back April 7 on his weekly TV program, which was taped that day before a small live audience. Using a whistle and the language of soccer, he fired Juan Fernandez and six other oil managers, saying they were “off sides.” ( Whistle blows )

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: Off sides. (Speaking Spanish) (translated): They became saboteurs of a company that belongs to all Venezuelans. For that, you are fired, senor Juan Fernandez. Thank you, you hear? Thank you very much.

JUAN FERNANDEZ: When I watched the president saying my name, that, you know, I was kicked out of PDVSA, I was very upset.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There were more protests after the firings. Then, opposition organizers called another strike the week of April 8, demanding that Juan Fernandez and his colleagues be rehired and the objectionable board members appointed by Chavez be removed.

JUAN FERNANDEZ: We started with a refinery in… that we call El Palito refinery, which the focus of this refinery is the domestic market, to supply gasoline for the domestic market. And then the other areas, the other big refinery that we have in Paraguana, also started to shut down. And all the facilities in the production side, let’s say, together with gas, and all the administration people were out on the street.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Workers around the country went on strike in solidarity, and on April 11, tens of thousands of people gathered outside an oil company office building for a rally. Leaders said, “let’s march to the presidential palace,” and by the time they drew near, at least one half million of Caracas’ four million residents were in the streets calling for Chavez to leave. (Crowd chanting in Spanish) (gunfire)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Shooting broke out. These people are members of Chavez’s Bolivarian circles who said they shot only when people among the demonstrators fired first. But top military officers blamed the president for the violence and forced him out. By the next day, thousands of Chavez supporters, including Edena, Lucy and Hedy, were in the streets. In 48 hours, Chavez was back in power.

LUCY ROMERO (Translated): We all want to defend this democracy and support the president of the republic. If civil war happens here, the opposition will be responsible. I think that’s what they’re looking for, because what we want is peace and work and happiness for this lovely country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Partly to rally the grassroots against his opponents, Chavez founded the Bolivarian circles last year. Almost everyone in this cooking class in Los Guayos was a member of a circle. Each circle has ten or eleven people, and Chavez supporters claim there are up to 70,000 circles in the country. These women denied opposition charges that the circles are armed.

HEDY PERDOMO (Translated): In reality, we in the Bolivarian circles are the organized community trying to find solutions to the problems of the community. Why do they say we’re armed? This is the way the ultra right, the fascists here in Venezuela, use to discredit the social work we’re doing with the president. They’d love it if we were armed, but in reality, the only arms we have is this: The Constitution of the Bolivarian republic of Venezuela.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chavez’s opponents also claim people in the circles are being trained by Cubans, and there are Cubans in Los Guayos; doctors who work in clinics like this one, but who were gone the day we were in town. And the people we met in Los Guayos denied the Cubans had anything to do with military training. After Chavez returned triumphantly to power last month, he said he would meet the opposition halfway. He apologized to Juan Fernandez and other oil company executives he had fired and reinstated them in their jobs.

Chavez also appointed as PDVSA President Ali Rodriguez, who had been secretary general of OPEC, and who is widely praised by both sides. Juan Fernandez said he recognized that he and his colleagues won an important victory, but he is worried about more violence in the future and committed to finding a peaceful way out. He is also determined to use his newfound leadership skills to help the poor.

JUAN FERNANDEZ: There are really many people in this country, which are very poor, and they don’t have options. We need to create options for them.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in Los Guayos, Lucy Romero, who is worried about more violence, too, said she was willing to work with opposition people like Fernandez.

LUCY ROMERO (Translated): I’m a teacher, a trained teacher with a certain amount of culture, and I want to make it clear that civil society in this country is not only the upper class. Here, there’s also a civil society of poor people who are educated and capable and have the desire to advance. We love the rich, yes, as well as the poor, but we want unity. We want unity.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What happens next in Los Guayos depends on whether unity and peace are possible now in Venezuela. Political crisis has brought economic crisis. There will be negative growth this year, which reinforces the perception of people on both sides that their very survival is at stake. The question is whether the two sides can find enough common ground to prevent further bloodshed and another coup.