Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, and Caracas, — Workers are holding overnight vigils this week at a Pepsi-Cola warehouse in central Venezuela in an attempt to block President Hugo Chavez's plans to seize the site, the latest in a series of nationalizations that have divided the nation.
The site of warehouse, along with other buildings in the city of Barquisimeto's industrial zone, has been targeted for new housing development by Chavez. The facility is owned by Polar, a food services conglomerate with which Chavez has often been at odds.
The nationalization of the site, which was formally decreed by Chavez this month, prompted Lara state Gov. Henri Falcon to resign from the president's party. In a recent interview with The Times, Falcon, who previously was mayor of Barquisimeto, said Chavez's autocratic ways prompted his decision to jump to the splinter socialist Party for Everyone.
The planned takeover is only the latest in a series of government moves to nationalize farms, factories and ranches in an effort to advance Chavez's "21st century socialism" and redistribute assets and properties to the poor. Some economists say the takeovers are often politically driven and hamstring the nation's economy.
A decree signed by Chavez recently singled out Polar parcels in the industrial park.
About 800 workers in the industrial park, including 450 with Pepsi, are in danger of losing their jobs. In an interview with The Times late Monday, Pepsi workers union leader Juan Tacoa said there has been no indication when the government would try to take over the site.
"If the National Guard arrives to clear us out, we will leave peacefully," Tacoa said of the vigils.
Elias Bessis, the president of Lara state's largest business association, Fedecamaras, told radio reporters Tuesday that the workers were "taking turns day and night to preserve the company.... The workers in our industrial zone reject these expropriations."
Falcon said that as mayor of Barquisimeto he worked on a master plan that envisioned industry, not housing, as the appropriate use of the site. He accused Chavez of acting in an arbitrary manner that flies in the face of civic processes and local rights.
"What we need is collective leadership, a relationship between the president, the governor and the mayor that is coordinated and constructive, not one of someone giving orders and the rest simply obeying them," Falcon said. He said the Party for Everyone will field a slate of candidates for the National Assembly in September as a "third way" option to Chavez and the major opposition parties.
Reacting to Falcon's departure in March from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Chavez called him a traitor and threatened to launch a criminal investigation of the popular governor.
At a public event Monday, Chavez said "justice was done" with the nationalization of the industrial park. "Polar has enough money to move," he said.
Chavez has promised to pay companies for seized properties, but many are still waiting for compensation, including many of the 60 oil field service companies whose assets were seized in May 2009.
Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.