GEORGE BUSH'S US government openly threw itself behind attempts to overthrow President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela last weekend. As it did so the country drew close to civil war. The opposition has launched a campaign very similar to that which culminated in the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile 29 years ago.
The employers' organisation, the Fedecamaras, the opposition parties and the right wing leader of the CTV union federation, Carlos Ortega, have tried to shut down all industry with a national stoppage beginning on 2 December. They have the backing of the owners of all the national newspapers and commercial TV stations, especially Globovision, whose head, Gustavo Cisneros, is an old fishing friend of George Bush Sr.
They have abandoned normal programming to give round the clock coverage of the opposition's activities and to paint a picture of Chavez as a maniacal dictator out to suppress all freedom of speech. In fact, Chavez won elections just two years ago, with 53 percent of the vote, and is ready to hold a referendum on his continuation in office next June.
But that is not good enough for the employers and the opposition, who are afraid he will win any election held then. They are out to drive him from office now. Venezuela is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Its upper class hates Chavez for laws which have slightly improved conditions for the majority of Venezuelans who live below the poverty line - for instance allowing them to take over uncultivated land.
The stoppage has involved firms locking their premises and then claiming their employees support them. A previous stoppage like this on 11 April led to sections of the army overthrowing Chavez.
But he was reinstated when hundreds of thousands of poor people poured into the centre of the capital, Caracas, and caused key military commanders to switch sides.
In the aftermath Chavez made certain concessions to placate the opposition, and called for 'national accord'. The opposition took this as a sign of his weakness and resumed their attempt to bring about a coup early in October.
A group of senior army officers issued a proclamation from one of the poshest areas of Caracas, Altamira, calling for a 'civil movement' against him. The first call for a national stoppage went out. But it soon became clear that most ordinary trade unionists would not back it. The anti-Chavez paper El Universal reported that the Fedepetrol oil union had 'split over the question'.
Rafael Rosales, the union president, attacked right wing union federation leader Carlos Ortega for 'engaging in the political fight and forgetting workers'. Jesus Hernandez, for the Caracas bus drivers, said that 80 percent would work normally. Franciso Torrealba, of the union of metro workers, guaranteed that they would not strike.
The opposition had to abandon the stoppage after just two hours. The new attempt to get workers to support a stoppage on 2 December was no more successful. A leader of an opposition party, Teodoro Petkoff, admitted, 'This is, in reality, a stoppage of the middle and upper classes.'
What the opposition could do was organise large protests of their middle class supporters in the well-off eastern areas of Caracas. They could also pressure the bosses of the national oil monopoly, the PDUSA, and of the country's tanker fleet to join the stoppage.
Such people believe that if they can get rid of Chavez they can make massive fortunes out of privatisation of the oil industry.
THE MOOD is such that some left wingers say that the threat of counter-revolution is producing a genuinely revolutionary upsurge - 'if not a 1917, at least a 1905'. It is impossible to tell from thousands of miles away how realistic such talk is.
Chavez, although praising workers who have taken over oil refineries, is still putting his faith in the command structure of the army to keep him in power. He sees the mobilisation of the workers and the poor as providing a helping hand to the actions of well-intentioned officers, not as a way of people taking the future into their own hands.
Yet all past experience shows that if left to their own devices, many of the army officers will switch sides. Chavez also continues to preach 'constitutional' methods, although the Venezuelan constitution allows the supporters of the opposition to dominate the Supreme Court. This let the organisers of April's coup walk free (declaring, incredibly, that 'there was not a coup').
It has also decreed that the government has no right to prevent private owners shutting down industry, and is saying that government must hand control of Caracas's militarised police force over to the mayor of the city, a leading opposition supporter.
The great mass of workers and poor people still have unlimited faith in Chavez, despite his tendency to backsliding. They talk of 'Bolivarian revolution' (after the 19th century nationalist hero Simon Bolivar), not socialist revolution.
But they have also shown an ability to take action on a massive scale without waiting for Chavez. This means that, at the time of writing, no one can tell which way events in Venezuela will go in the days ahead. One thing is certain. A new spirit of rebellion is rising across Latin America. Argentina commemorates a year since its spontaneous uprising. Brazil awaits on 1 January the inauguration of a Workers Party government committed to improving the lot of the mass of people.
The masses confront the rich
AT THE beginning of last week petrol and diesel deliveries began to close down and tanker captains refused to load up oil for export. They believed they would bring Chavez down within days as transport ground to a halt and people started going hungry.
They had not reckoned with the feelings of the great mass of Venezuela's workers and poor people. Chavez's supporters organised a demonstration of at least a million people, larger than anything the opposition had been able to manage. More importantly, workers began taking action themselves to smash the lockout. A member of the left wing group Chispa (Spark) tells how:
'Concentrations of people took place at the El Palito oil refinery in the state of Carabobo. One group of people were trying to enforce the stoppage, the other to end it. 'These succeeded in preventing the closure of the refinery and kept the petrol flowing. Many workers remained, keeping guard on the place for four or five days.'
In the industrial zone of the city of Valencia, 'there was a tremendous concentration of workers who began to guarantee the delivery of petrol'. In the city of Guayana thousands of workers in steel and aluminium plants organised themselves to make a four-hour journey to the town of Anaco to enforce the delivery of gas to keep production going.
Anger at the torrent of lies from the media led to huge protests outside the private TV stations, with demands for them to come under the control of the masses.
Across the poor areas of Caracas, neighbourhood assemblies have been preparing to move hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets if the opposition tries to carry out its threat to seize control of the presidential palace. The slogan is, 'If they carry through another 11 April' (the day the last coup occurred), 'we will have another 13 April' (the day the workers and the poor smashed the coup).