PUERTO ORDAZ, Venezuela—There's a general strike today in Venezuela. At least I think so. It's kinda hard to tell the difference between an intentional work stoppage and a normal "business day" in a country with a broken economy.
The streets are quiet, and the shopping mall is nearly empty. And in a local food court in Puerto Ordaz, a city of 1 million people, half the restaurants are shuttered.
It's a slow day even for Venezuela, a country with a stalled economy.
It's because of the general strike, which was announced during a protest march last Wednesday, as part of the opposition's redoubled efforts to knuckle down on President Nicolas Maduro after his government canceled efforts to hold a recall referendum.
But enthusiasm for the strike seemed to dampen on Thursday, when President Maduro went on TV and threatened to expropriate any businesses that shut its doors on Friday. Any rebellious shopkeepers found not to be whistling while they work on Friday would have their businesses taken over by the government and given to "the people and the working class,” the president promised.
Maduro's threats put shopkeepers in a very difficult position. Venezuela's long-suffering private sector is already struggling to survive amid a ruinous economy and increased government harassment. And expropriation is not an empty threat in Venezuela.
The country's main federation of business chambers, FEDECAMARAS, issued a quick statement yesterday distancing themselves from the calls for a general strike today. The business group, which is supporting the push for a recall vote, said that it was up to each one of its members to decide whether to open or close on Friday.
On the other hand, is there anyway to really notice a strike in an economy that's already breathing its dying gasps?
"There are many businesses that are already paralyzed right now due to lack of parts, goods, and primary materials, as any shopper will notice by looking at store shelves," said Carlos Larrazabal, president of FEDECAMARAS.
Many store owners say they're responding to the strike cautiously, even if they support it in theory. The general manager of a major supermarket chain in eastern Venezuela told me, under condition of anonymity, that he decided to open his stores today to avoid government reprisal, but wasn't asking his workers to come in.
“If transport isn't working properly, if someone can't take a taxi or a bus to work, we'll have to count Friday as a day in which external factors prevented employees from arriving to work,” he said, adding that he hopes folks just stay at home today.
“One would hope that people just stay at home and don't come to shop; don't do anything,” he said.
There was a similar situation in Caracas' financial sector. The government forced the banks and the stock market to open this morning, but one stockbroker I talked to said his trading house wasn't forcing anyone to actually work today.
“People were given the liberty to do what they want to on Friday,” he told me.
Although many shopkeepers opened their doors today out of self-preservation, the ones I talked to said they quietly support the national work-stoppage.
“Any protest that demonstrates people's dissatisfaction with the situation we are living in is welcome,” the grocer told me.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.
Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America, was born a gringo to well-meaning parents, but would rather have been Nicaraguan. Also, he's the second hit on Google when you search for "Guatemalan superhero." Tim was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.