In politically polarized Venezuela, both supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez marched peacefully in the capital, Caracas, on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the civic-military uprising that overthrew US-backed dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez on January 23, 1958.
Addressing tens of thousands of red-clad supporters in O’Leary Plaza, in western Caracas, Chavez used the opportunity to call for unity and loyalty of all sectors that support the “Bolivarian Revolution,” as the process of social change underway in Venezuela is known, in the upcoming national assembly elections scheduled for September 26.
“We have to win the great majority in the national assembly . . . and continue deepening the socialist project,” he said. Chavez’s anti-neoliberal policies, his utilization of Venezuela’s vast oil resources to promote pro-poor policies such as free education and healthcare, and his avowed aim of building “socialism of the 21st Century” in Venezuela have earned him the ire of both Venezuelan and US elites.
“US imperialism is in full counterattack. Electoral victories of the right wing [i.e. in Chile] have the continental right wing excited. They want to eliminate the left governments to impose lackeys of Yankee imperialism,” he told the crowd.
Therefore, “here in the popular revolutionary ranks, I call for maximum loyalty and unity. Unity, free and open discussion, but loyalty,” he insisted. Internal currents and factions are welcome but unity and loyalty are two important aspects to “assure” a “clear victory,” he reiterated.
The method of choosing candidates is being discussed in the extraordinary congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, led by Chavez), and will be presented in February, the president said.
Key challenges facing the Bolivarian revolution in the lead-up to the elections are to continue the struggle against corruption, against bureaucracy, crime and inefficiency, and to consolidate the “new social system,” of communal councils and other organs for grassroots participation Chavez outlined.
Right-wing opposition groups, who in 2002 staged a short-lived US-backed coup against the democratically elected Chavez and say he is a “dictator,” held a separate march in the wealthy eastern districts of Caracas also using the opportunity to call for unity among opposition parties in the upcoming national assembly elections.
“We are building unity to put an end to a dictatorial regime,” said Andrés Velásquez, leader of the Radical Cause opposition party.
The opposition also protested electricity and water saving measures introduced by the government to combat a crisis in the electricity sector. Venezuela’s rainfall was 40 percent below average in 2009, causing water levels in the Guri hydro-electric dam — which provides 70 percent of the country’s power needs — to drop to critical lows resulting in power outages in some areas.
Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, said, “I don’t understand why there is a drought in a country with so many rivers.” Opposition supporters also called for people to increase their energy and water consumption in protest and to refuse to pay their power bills.
Overnight, opposition supporters also held a “cacerolazo” or pot-banging protest in middle-class areas of Caracas, yelling, “Chavez out!” and “Chavez, the people hate you.”
“The opposition says they are going to bring down Chavez, they claim they are the majority,” Chavez said on Saturday. “If this is true, I challenge them to call a recall referendum. . . . Why don’t they go out and collect the signatures instead of talking nonsense? Come on, kick me out of government!” he challenged.
Speaking to the opposition march, National Assembly Deputy, Ismael Garcia, from the opposition party Podemos, responded: “We don’t want a referendum, what we want is the national assembly.”
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Despite strong opposition from middle and upper class sectors, Chavez remains overwhelmingly popular amongst Venezuela’s poor and working class majority, with the latest poll by the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis (IVAD) showing him with a 60.3 percent approval rating.
Many residents from the working class 23 de Enero neighborhood, which was named for its leading role in the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez, and remains a bastion of support for Chavez, argue the 40 years of “pacted democracy” (between the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez in 1958 and the election of Chavez in 1998), during which major political parties signed a power-sharing deal known as the Punto Fijo Pact, was a betrayal of the “spirit of January 23.”
“This is the real voice of the Venezuelan people,” Marisabel Rodriguez, a 23 de Enero resident, told Venezuelanalysis.com, gesturing to the crowd of red-clad Chavez supporters. “The opposition claims there is a dictatorship in here Venezuela, they say there is no freedom of expression, this is a lie! They protest with full liberty, they control the majority of the media,” she said. “They want us to go back to the way things were before, without any social justice,” she added.
If they win control of the national assembly, the opposition “are coming for me next,” Chavez has warned, “They want to put an end to the Bolivarian revolution.”
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Although Chavez’s individual popularity remains high, support for the PSUV is much lower, at 32.3%, and frustration over unresolved problems such as, crime, electricity shortages, inflation, rubbish collection, and government inefficiency means a “Chavista” majority in the national assembly elections is not guaranteed.
However, the PSUV remains in first place nationally with Venezuelan opposition parties trailing far behind. The Democratic Action (Accion Democratica) party enjoys 5.3% support, Justice First (Primero Justicia) 4.4%, A New Era (Un Nuevo Tiempo) 2.5%, COPEI 2.2%, while other smaller parties account for 4.8%. Meanwhile, 46.5% of respondents to the poll were undecided or did not answer the question regarding political party support.
This article was first published in Venezuelanalysis.com on 24 January 2010 under a Creative Commons license.