Close your eyes and imagine a country that supplies a major portion of the United State’s imported oil. Imagine a country historically dominated by American corporate interests. Imagine that this country’s government is considered “too left wing” by powerful forces in the United States. Then imagine the media in that country is overwhelmingly conservative and pro-American.

Now open your eyes to the reality of Venezuela. Canadians have good reason to be concerned about recent events in that South American country.

Only seven months after a military coup that attempted to topple democratically elected President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela is again descending into chaos. For the past two weeks the country has been gripped by a general strike — the fourth of the year — supported by both major business and elite trade union federations.

Though the strike seems to be withering due to lack of support amongst the poor majority, disruption continues in the key industry: oil. The state-owned oil company, Petroleum of Venezuela, remains under the control of anti-Chávez forces. Military intervention and civil war are still a possibility.

Today’s turmoil stretches back to before the coup of April 11 when Chávez was ousted and returned to office within forty-eight hours. His return was thanks to a split within the army (some for, some against) as well as the massive popular support that put Chávez in power in the first place. The coup was led by then leader of the country’s main business group Fedecámaras.

Today, in a similar situation the anti-government opposition forces are calling on Chávez to resign. While Chávez has important enemies in the media, amongst the rich and in the U.S., his supporters are many and committed.

Chávez was elected in 1998 and again in 2000 with nearly sixty per cent of the vote. His victory broke a forty-year-old two-party stranglehold on the reins of power. And he’s been leading a “Bolivariano revolution,” named after the nineteenth-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, ever since.

Venezuela is a country polarized along economic as well as racial lines. Nearly eighty per cent of the population lives in poverty and there is a strong correlation between poverty and dark skin. Chávez, who is of black and indigenous origins, has concentrated on improving the living conditions of the poor.

His policies have included land redistribution for poor farmers, title tothe self-built homes in the barrios (poor neighbourhoods), steady increases in the minimum wage and of public sector salaries, and the enrolment of over one million previously excluded students in school.

Two years ago, Chávez called upon his supporters to organize themselves into Bolivariano Circles, a grassroots network of neighbourhood groups designed to shore up the “revolution.” They act as lobbying groups that appeal directly to Chávez for help financing community programs. Money is awarded for almost anything from loan programs to individual medical needs.

The circles are concentrated in Caracas’ teeming slums where over sixty per cent of the city’s 5 million people live. Government estimates put the number of Bolivariano Circles at over 130,000 across the country. With seven to fifteen members in each circle, the nation-wide total membership totals over one million.

Critics charge that the circles are little more than intimidation groups. The opposition believes that the government has armed the circles and trained them to spy in the manner of Cuba’s Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, although there is little evidence to back those claims.

Chávez has at times been overly dismissive of his critics. He rails against the corrupt oligarchy. As a result he has antagonized large segments of society. Nevertheless, supporters of democracy must concede Chávez’s right to continue in power, despite his dropping popularity (now just over thiry per cent) — not an uncommon phenomenon in most democracies, after all.

According to the constitution, to remove Chávez, the opposition needs only to wait until August, half way through his term when a binding referendum can be held. But outside forces are coming into play.

Prior to the April 11 coup, U.S. state department officials met with coup leaders, and America was quick to recognize the new government. Recently Chávez has been more conciliatory towards the U.S. but, this past weekend, the Bush administration came out clearly on the side of the opposition, calling on Chávez to contravene the constitution and call an election. (The current weakened economy lends support to anti-Chávez forces who fear support for Chávez will bounce back should the economy pick up as a result of rising oil prices.)

The Canadian government thus far has not defended Venezuelan democracy. While after April 11 most Latin American leaders strongly condemned the coup, our government said little. Now, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham is simply asking for the Venezuelan government and the anti-Chávez forces to resume dialogue.

Mr. Graham, in the spirit of continental integration, should clearly state Canada’s unequivocal opposition to any government that gains power undemocratically. Anything less is tacit consent to a return to the bad old days of South American coups and military juntas.

Yves Engler

Dubbed “Canada’s version of Noam Chomsky” (Georgia Straight), “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I. F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), “part...