On January 1 Venezuela entered into its second month of a national work stoppage. Close to 90 percent of the working population refuses to participate as producers in an economy that supports the regime of Lieutenant Col. Hugo Chavez. In a disorganized and chaotic fashion, without any single leader or political party, the people (known as “the opposition”) have taken a page out of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, and tried to answer an important question in that literary masterpiece: what would happen if the productive forces laboring under a despotic government went on strike and ceased subsidizing their own subjugation?
Chavez, a radical Marxist, was elected four years ago on a campaign promising to eradicate poverty and do away with government corruption. Since he was elected he has done away with the rule of law and private property while presiding over the greatest oil boom in Venezuela’s history. Corruption and poverty have grown to levels unseen in the country’s history. Chavez passed 49 decrees that expropriated private property in the name of his “revolution.” He terrorizes the opposition with his militia, the Circulos Bolivarianos—armed thugs financed by the government. But there is hope.
The country is united against Chavez. The labor unions and the chamber of commerce oppose him. They all speak of liberty, dignity, and the right to work for one’s prosperity. They see his rule as a threat and on December 1, 2002 they discontinued their complicity. The unions orchestrated the closing of industry for one day. Then they extended it another day. And another... New Year’s Day was the 30th day. But most surprising and encouraging: the government’s main source of revenue, the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, has also stopped.
The drama of the oil stoppage illustrates the magical realism that South America is famous for. Beyond the 40,000 laborers, engineers, and technicians that left the refineries and oil fields, the stoppage climaxed at sea. Dozens of oil tankers, part of the merchant marine, suddenly dropped their anchors and declared solidarity with the opposition. One ship, the Pilin Leon, was headed for Cuba (Chavez supplied free oil to Fidel Castro’s government). Some companies use names of kings and heroes, others use names of presidents or business leaders, in Venezuela, oil tankers are named after the country’s second greatest export: beauty queens. Pilin Leon was the Venezuelan beauty queen who became Miss World 1981. The drama surrounding the Pilin Leon became the focus of the struggle. Miss Leon herself, in London judging the Miss Universe contest that had recently been moved from Nigeria, sent the ship’s crew a message that she was proud of them and hoped they would stand firm. They did.
Days later, The tanker was taken over in a commando-style raid by Venezuela’s armed forces after Chavez decreed the lethal use of force in order to protect the “energy supply of the revolution.” Other tankers were also forced back to port but most remain anchored—Chavez does not have the manpower with the expertise to sail them at full capacity. Oil facilities use less than 10 percent of their capacity.
The governments of the hemisphere have abandoned the liberty-lovingproducers of Venezuela (Brazil’s government, now headed by Chavez sympathizer Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has shipped tankers with gasoline to break the work stoppage) and the U.S. Ambassador here has blithely mouthed platitudes about the importance of democracy while disregarding the crimes of the government. He even failed to condemn the televised murder of opposition members by Chavez thugs, instead engaging in moral equivalency and blaming “two sides.”
Perhaps the U.S. government’s policy on Chavez (nefariously influenced by President Clinton’s former Ambassador to Venezuela who is now Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council advisor for Latin America) is betting on the chance that Chavez can weather the work stoppage and get the oil flowing soon (for an Iraq war timetable?). Venezuela supplies the U.S. with 15 percent of its oil imports.
As in Rand’s novel, things get progressively worse and government rhetoric cannot alter the reality. Chavez calls the country’s workers “Traitors who have stabbed their country in the back.” His ministers publicly suggested that lethal force be used to compel the workers to return to their posts.
There is no fear in Venezuela. There is resolve, indignation, and determination. The oil workers have daily meetings, massive gatherings taking place at amphitheaters, universities, and even ballrooms. Their will is unshakeable in the face of the tyrant. The wheels of production have stopped turning. For now Atlas has shrugged.
—Thor L. Halvorssen has served as a political strategist and campaign consultant in two Venezuelan presidential elections. He lives in Philadelphia.