Opposition and Government Supporters Rally Their Forces
Evidence for the passions in and polarization of Venezuelan society was clearly on display on October 10, at the anti-government demonstration, and on October 13, at the pro-government demonstration. Both protests managed to draw crowds that probably exceeded any previous demonstration in Venezuelan history. Estimates for each demonstration range between 400,000 and well over one million.
The October 10 anti-government demonstration, however, made many people very nervous because leading up to it were numerous rumors of an impending coup. While the media/opposition was mobilizing the population to go to the demonstration, Chavez disclosed that the government had aborted a coup and arrested some of its plotters.
While more coup plotters were supposed to be arrested in Caracasâ€™ upper-middle class neighborhoods, neighbors took to the streets and prevented the police from making their arrests. Other active-duty military officials began making pronouncements on television against the government, much like happened shortly before the coup attempt last April. Both the opposition and government supporters were very nervous about what might happen that day.
As is usual, the media provided total coverage of the opposition demonstration, which was indeed very large. For the opposition leadership it was consummate proof that nearly everyone in Venezuela rejects the Chavez government. For government supporters it was intimidating and had the desired effect of giving the impression that they had lost in the battle for public opinion.
Two days later, on the state-run television channel, Chavez and members of his party compared amateur video coverage with that provided by the television stations. These showed that some private stations were claiming to transmit live images of the demonstration, when, according to the amateur video, the demonstration had already passed the point that the TV stations were supposedly showing, thereby making the demonstration appear larger than it actually was.
While the opposition had the mediaâ€™s complete support and had prepared several weeks for its demonstration, Chavezâ€™ Fifth Republic Movement party (MVR) prepared only two days for its October 13 demonstration to commemorate the protests that brought Chavez back to power six months earlier, on April 13. Galvanized by the need to show that not everyone opposes Chavez, many Chavez supporters went to this demonstration who had never gone to a demonstration before.
They surprised each other at the immense turn-out and devotion of the demonstration. As one participant commented, â€œIt is difficult to describe with words what I felt and saw on these peopleâ€™s faces when Chavez finally appeared: love, devotion, hope, faithâ€¦ I donâ€™t know, since the Popeâ€™s last visit here I had not seen anything comparable to this.â€ They were relieved to see that they were not the only ones who still supported the government, contrary to what the media was telling them.
Despite the success of the pro-government demonstration, or more likely because of it, some opposition politicians, such as Antonio Ledezma of Alianza Bravo Pueblo, still insisted that most of the demonstrators were paid to be there and estimated that the amount per demonstrator was about $30 per person.
Some government supporters now believe that this demonstration was as important as the one that brought Chavez back after the April coup. It showed the nation that Chavez still enjoys widespread support and that the media are presenting a very distorted image of Venezuelan society.
However, the opposition insisted on pursuing its plans for ousting the president and proceeded with a general strike on October 21, jointly sponsored by both the union federation CTV and the main chamber of commerce, Fedecameras. While the eastern, wealthier part of Caracas was practically shut down for the day, the eastern, poorer part of the city presented a more mixed picture of calm activity.
The opposition announced that the strike was a resounding success because, according to their figures, over 80% of all normal work-day activity had come to a halt. For them the strike was incontrovertible proof that a vast majority of Venezuelans oppose the government and that the presidentâ€™s resignation must follow.
The government, on the other hand, said the strike was a failure because only the more visible shops were closed, making everything only look like a Sunday, while in actuality most people did go to work. Another reason the strike constituted a failure, according to government spokespersons, is that it did not achieve what it set out to do, the resignation of the president.
Whatever the case may be in terms of participation, such a joint business owner and worker strike, is really a lock-out in which the workers get paid. Workers thus have a double-incentive not to work: pay and a closed workplace. To conceive this as proof of anyoneâ€™s opposition other than the business sectorâ€™s, takes a fairly wild imagination.
Gregory Wilpert is a freelance journalist and sociologist, who is currently working on a book on Venezuela during the Chavez presidency, which will be published by Zed Books in 2003.