January 10, 2003 -- 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 Colonel Hugo Chávez. In a disorganized and chaotic fashion, without any single leader or political party, the people (referred to 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?
Chávez, 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. Chávez passed forty-nine 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 Chávez. 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 thirtieth 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 (Chávez supplied free oil to Fidel Castro's government). Some companies use the names of monarchs and heroes on their ships, others use the 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. 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.
Twenty days later, the tanker was taken over in a commando-style raid by Venezuela's armed forces after Chávez decreed the lethal use of force in order to protect the "energy supply of the revolution" from the "pirates." Simultaneously and with no planning, motorboats, yachts, canoes, and even kayaks surrounded the Pilin Leon to offer moral support to its crew. Other tankers were also forced back to port, and all crews were arrested. Most tankers remain at port—Chávez does not have the manpower with the expertise to sail them at full capacity. Oil facilities now produce less than 10 percent of their capacity.
There is no fear in Venezuela. There is resolve, indignation, and determination.
The governments of the hemisphere have abandoned the liberty-loving producers of Venezuela (Brazil's government, now headed by Chávez sympathizer Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has sent tankers with gasoline to break the work stoppage), and the U.S. ambassador in Venezuela 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 Chávez thugs, instead engaging in moral equivalency and blaming "two sides."
Venezuela supplies the United States with 15 percent of its oil imports. Perhaps the U.S. government's policy on Chávez (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 Chávez can weather the work stoppage and get the oil flowing soon (for an Iraq war timetable?).
As in Rand's novel, things get progressively worse and government rhetoric cannot alter the reality. Chávez 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.
In the January 23, 2003, issue of the Weekly Standard, Halvorssen published an article about the Venezuelan government's torture of a Chávez supporter for trying to find common ground with government opponents. It is available here.