The Venezuelan general strike of 2002–2003, also known as the oil strike or oil lockout, was an attempt by the Venezuelan opposition to President Hugo Chávez to force a new presidential election. It took place from December 2002 to February 2003, when it faded. The government fired over 18,000 PDVSA employees for "dereliction of duty" during the strike. and arrest warrants were issued for the presidents of the striking organizations. The main impact of the strike derived from the stoppage of the oil industry, in particular the state-run PDVSA, which provides a majority of Venezuelan export revenue. The strike was preceded by the 2002 Venezuelan coup d'état attempt in April 2002, and a one-day strike in October 2002.
After April's coup d'état attempt, conflict simmered throughout the rest of 2002. On 14 August the Supreme Tribunal of Justice absolved four military officers involved in the April coup. This set the scene for further actions by the military.
On 21 October a one-day general strike (paro) took place (two general strikes had taken place in December 2001 and in April 2002), aimed at forcing the resignation of Chávez or at least the calling of new elections. On 22 October 14 military officers who had been suspended for participating in the coup, led by General Enrique Medina Gómez, occupied Plaza Francia in Altamira, an Eastern Caracas neighbourhood, and declared it a "liberated territory". They said they would not leave until Chávez had resigned, and called on their colleagues in the military to rise against the government.
In early November, there was a major clash of government and opposition demonstrators in downtown Caracas; and, in the middle of the month, a shootout which resulted in three deaths occurred in Caracas' Plaza Bolivar between the Metropolitan Police and the National Guard.
The Coordinadora Democrática, led by the business federation Fedecámaras and the trade union federation Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), called for a fourth paro cívico, which turned out to be the most serious, and is known as the 2002–2003 oil strike, to begin on 2 December 2002. The opposition also called a recall-referendum-petition-signature-gathering day for 4 December. Initially the strike had a mixed response, with affluent eastern Caracas seeing most shops closed, while downtown and western Caracas was busy; many business owners either supported Chávez or put their business above politics. Early attempts to block a crucial navigation channel in Lake Maracaibo, in order to paralyse the oil industry, were foiled by the navy. The National Electoral Council voted to hold a non-binding recall referendum on 2 February, but the Coordinadora Democrática chose to ignore it. On 4 December the captain of a large oil tanker named for the beauty queen Pilín León anchored in the Lake Maracaibo shipping channel and refused to move. The rest of PDVSA 13-ship fleet was quickly similarly grounded. Combined with the PDVSA management walkout, this effectively paralysed the Venezuelan oil industry.
The key element of the paro was the stoppage of production at the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), which was effected by management's locking workers out of facilities, along with the shipping shutdown. Many low and mid-level employees ignored the strike and reported for work. Unlike the previous strikes, this oil strike included not only the PDVSA management but also substantial parts of its operational staff, including virtually all of its marine flotilla captains. Within days the company was paralyzed.
Petroleum production soon fell to one-third normal; Venezuela had to begin importing oil to meet its foreign obligations; and domestically, gasoline for cars became virtually unobtainable, with many filling stations closed and long queues at others. Many privately owned businesses closed or went on short time, some out of sympathy for the strike, others because of the fuel shortage and economic paralysis. As long waits for gasoline became common, airlines cancelled many domestic flights, banks limited their opening hours, and many shops were shut despite it being peak Christmas shopping season. The Coordinadora adopted the slogan "2002 without Christmas, 2003 without Chávez".
The private television networks gave enormous coverage to the near-daily protest rallies and strike activities, as well as daily updates by the Coordinadora Democrática. They also "canceled regular advertisements and ran pro-strike, anti-Chávez spots around the clock." Venevisión's president openly declared solidarity with the strike. A media war between the private networks and the state-run Venezolana de Televisión resulted, with for example the private networks declaring all universities and schools closed, while on VTV the Minister for Education declared them open. In 2009 Globovisión was assessed $2.3m in back taxes for the opposition advertisements shown during this period.
Large pro- and anti-Chávez marches were held in the first weeks of the strike. On 6 December a Portuguese taxi driver named João de Gouveia killed three and injured 28 at Plaza Altamira. The opposition blamed Chávez, and the killings "energized and radicalized the opposition movement". On 9 December the opposition declared the strike to be of indefinite duration, and said that only Chávez's resignation could end it.
As shortages of gasoline and later basic foods took hold, the government responded by developing an informal emergency import network with the support of other governments in the region. Chávez also took an increasingly hard line with PDVSA in an attempt to break the strike. On 12 December he fired four PDVSA executives leading the strike; he had previously fired them and others in April before the coup, but reinstated them after the coup. He continued to dismiss striking executives and managers on a daily basis; 300 were gone by early January. Attempts to use the navy to take over the key Pilín León tanker were initially thwarted by a lack of a qualified crew. On 19 December a team of retired seamen took command, and worked for two days to restart the ship, eventually successfully returning it to port. The departing crew "had sabotaged the ship, leaving behind hard-to-notice traps in the computer system and elsewhere that could set off an explosion." Gradually, the government restarted oil production by promoting lower-level employees, typically loyal to Chávez or at least opposed to using the company as a political weapon. The company was also split into eastern and western parts, with the eastern Caracas headquarters, where striking executives and managers were concentrated, being heavily reduced. Efforts to restart production were hampered by sabotage, which included changing electronic safety limits and the use of remote computers to interfere with reactivation attempts.
By New Year, the strike was beginning to unravel, despite the still increasing scarcity of consumer goods. More and more small and medium businesses re-opened; many small businesses had never closed in the first place. "small- and medium-sized businesses reopened their doors, admitting that the strike now threatened to turn into a 'suicide watch' that could well bankrupt their businesses for good." The Coordinadora attempted to promote a tax boycott (which the television networks supported); the government pointed out that tax evasion was a crime. Towards the end of January the Coordinadora began to accept first privately and then publicly the partial re-opening of businesses and schools, and on 27 January the Caracas Stock Exchange re-opened for the first time in 9 weeks, for a few hours a day. On 23 January a rally of several hundred thousand Chavistas took place. By the time of the 11th anniversary of the 4 February 1992 coup attempt, the strike was virtually over outside the oil industry. The government gradually reestablished control over PDVSA; oil production reached pre-strike levels by April 2003.
In the aftermath of the strike, the government fired 18,000 PDVSA employees, 40% of the company's workforce, for "dereliction of duty" during the strike. Arrest warrants were issued for the presidents of Fedecamaras (Carlos Fernandez) and the CTV (Carlos Ortega). Involvement in government efforts to maintain food and gasoline distribution saw turning points in the careers of leading businessmen Ricardo Fernández Barrueco and Wilmer Ruperti respectively.
After the February 2003 collapse of the strike, the Coordinadora Democrática (CD) was much more willing to participate in the Organization of American States (OAS) "mesa" dialogue process which had been set up following the 2002 Venezuelan coup d'état attempt. The CD pushed for a binding recall referendum under Article 72 of the Constitution of Venezuela, which was ultimately agreed on 23 May 2003, and took place in August 2004.
The strike produced severe economic dislocation. The country's GDP fell 27% during the first four months of 2003, and it cost the oil industry $13.3bn. Open unemployment, which was running about 15% before and after the shutdown, reached 20.3% in March 2003; the volume of crude oil produced was 5% less in 2003 than the previous year; and the volume of refined oil products was 17% less. During the lockout Venezuela had, for the first time in the country's history, defaulted on its international petroleum supply contracts, unable to meet its commitments – including to its principal customer, the United States.
The informal network importing basic goods which the government developed during the strike went on to provide the basis for Mission Mercal. In addition the transformation of PDVSA had lasting political consequences, enabling the government to make much more direct use of PDVSA revenues for political projects such as Bolivarian Missions.
Ya estamos desarrollando e instalando un sistema integral pleno, nacional, de distribución de alimentos y de medicinas, para que no haya escasez