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Venezuelan Business Strike Seen as Challenge to Chavez - 2001-12-09

The national business strike called for Monday in Venezuela is shaping up into a major test of strength between populist President Hugo Chavez and his opponents. At issue is a clash over ideologies and the future direction of the country.

The planned 12-hour work stoppage Monday has been called by Venezuela's largest business association to protest a series of economic laws that President Chavez issued by decree last month.

The laws affect important sectors of the country's economy, including the oil industry, agriculture, and fisheries. They include measures such as allowing for the expropriation of farmland, and giving the government more control over the oil industry. Oil is Venezuuela's chief export and the South American nation is a major petroleum supplier to the United States.

The business association Fedecamaras says these laws are unconstitutional because they were issued by decree and they violate the principle of private property. Fedecamaras President Pedro Carmona says Mr. Chavez should suspend these economic laws so they can be discussed and changed. "What we have asked for is the suspension of between six and eight of these laws," he said, "so they can be thoroughly analyzed as to their impact on the present and future of this country."

But these measures are at the heart of the social revolution promised by Mr. Chavez, a leftist populist who was overwhelmingly elected President three years ago. He has said measures like the Land Reform Law are aimed at redressing decades of injustice.

Congresswoman Deside Santos Amaral of Mr. Chavez' ruling party tells VOA the essence of these laws is to protect the poorest sectors of society. She says there is a clear determination that these laws will be carried out because this is a government that will bring social justice - and not until there is social justice, will there be peace in this country.

But it is not clear if this is what most Venezuelans want. Support for Mr. Chavez and his policies has been declining dramatically in recent months, according to opinion surveys. A poll by the firm Datanalysis shows 55 percent of the population considers job creation the most important issue in the country. Yet Datanalysis chief Luis Vicente Leon says almost 90 percent of those surveyed believe Mr. Chavez is doing a bad job at creating employment. He says there has been a significant decline in the perception of the President's management since July, and it is especially dramatic this month when it rose by 8 percentage points. More than 88 percent of Venezuelans now say they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the President's performance in creating jobs.

But Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, dismisses these survey results, saying they are politically motivated. In speech after speech in recent days, he has vowed not to reverse his leftist policies, which he says are supported by the majority of Venezuelans.

As part of this revolution, he successfully pushed for the creation of a constituent assembly which drafted a new constitution that was approved in a referendum two years ago. The constitution gave the Venezuelan leader expanded powers, and extended the presidential term to six years. He said these and other changes were necessary to sweep away a corrupt system that left 60 percent of the country's population in poverty, despite Venezuela's oil wealth.

But analyst Anibal Romero of the University Simon Bolivar, says Mr. Chavez misunderstood the mandate he was given three years ago when he was elected. "He has tried to make a left-wing revolution but he was not elected to do that, and that has been his fundamental mistake," Romero explained. "He thought he was elected to, in this country, make a revolution, but no, he was elected to leave behind an unsatisfactory past to build a new future, a democratic future, a future of prosperity for Venezuelans, not a revolution. So he has wasted a lot of time and a lot of political capital in a sterile search for leftwing radical revolution with very little to show for it."

Monday's planned strike is expected to be widely observed. Opposition-led labor unions, agricultural associations, and other groups have announced they will participate in the business-led shutdown. But some transport companies, public sector unions, and others say their members will go to work as usual.

Whatever happens Monday, it is clear Mr. Chavez is facing his first major challenge to what he has called his peaceful social revolution since he took office in February 1999.