Venezuelan workers protest Chavez's nationalization of U.S. company

As part of ongoing efforts to introduce "21st century socialism" to Venezuela, Hugo Chávez plans to nationalize yet another foreign company -- this time the local subsidiary of U.S. glass-making giant Owens-Illinois, Inc. Chávez claims the company's subsidiary has been "exploiting" workers.

You'd think the 1,000 workers at Owens-Illinois de Venezuela CA would be overjoyed to know they'll soon have all the benefits of a "workers' paradise."

Just the opposite is the case.

Yesterday, hundreds of "exploited" workers loudly protested the impending nationalization. Speaking to a Venezuelan TV station, union leader Rigoberto Méndez said workers were "totally in disagreement with the expropriation." Owen's workers had an excellent contract and good working conditions, he stressed, while surrounded by supportive workers. The company has been in Venezuela 50 years.

"We are going to defend the company to the last," Méndez said. "We want our right to work to be respected." (You can see a video clip here of Méndez giving an interview to Venezuela's Globovision television station.)

Méndez speculated that a nationalized company will enable Chávez to indirectly control the many companies the glass manufacturer supplies. One of the biggest is Empresas Polar SA, Venezuela's largest beer and food producer - a company Chávez often criticizes. Indeed, Chávez declared "an economic war" on Venezuela's "bourgeoisie" last June, and he lashed into Polar owner Lorenzo Mendoza "for allegedly manipulating its employees and trying to undermine the government," Bloomberg News noted in an article about the expropriation.

Mendoza has the sort of credentials Chávez despises: Forbes magazine named him Venezuela's second-wealthiest man, Bloomberg noted. He also "runs a venture with PepsiCo Inc. and makes Harina P.A.N., the staple corn flour to make arepas, the flat cakes that are a staple of the Venezuelan diet."

Explaining what Chávez hopes to gain, Bloomberg provided insights from a Venezuelans analyst who echoed those of union leader Méndez: 

"The takeover will weaken closely held putting its supply chain under government control, said Rafael Alfonzo, president of Caracas-based researcher Cedice. Combined with the expropriation earlier this month of Agroislena C.A. Sucesora de Enrique Fraga Afonso, Venezuela's biggest farm-supply business, the move gives Chávez significant sway over Polar, Alfonzo said.

"The expropriation of Owens-Illinois is part of a government project to create a food hegemony and the total takeover of the food supply," Alfonzo said in a phone interview. "If you control the supply chain, there is no need to take control of a company like Polar."

Chávez made his announcement on state television Monday in his typically buffoonish manner, while surrounded by government lackeys. (Even readers who don't speak Spanish will get a sense of this from this Globovision video clip.)

"What's it called?" Chávez said, gesturing toward officials after apparently forgetting the name of the company he plans to expropriate.

"Owens-Illinois!" he continued without missing a beat. "Expropriate it."

According to a spokesperson at Owens-Illinois, the announcement was the first they'd heard of Chávez's plans to take-over the company. Such surprise announcements are typical of how Chávez operates. During his 11 years in office, El Presidente has carried out nationalizations in the telecommunications, steel, banking, power, and oil sectors. Not  surprisingly, Venezuela is Latin America's worst-performing economy this year.

The fact that Venezuela's workers are opposed to the take-over underscores that Chávez's agenda is not about creating better conditions for workers. It's about power, ideology, and Chávez's own narcissism.

Venezuela's poor take a back seat to all these things.
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