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Strike Paralyzes Major Venezuelan Cities


The 12-hour national strike in Venezuela succeeded in virtually paralyzing the South American nation in protest over President Hugo Chavez' policies. But the populist leader does not appear ready to back down, opening up the prospect for further strikes and unrest. .

Monday's strike shut down 90 percent of Venezuela's businesses, leaving the capital and other major cities almost deserted. The country's largest business association, Fedecamaras, was joined by opposition-led labor unions, professional associations, and other groups.

The cause of the strike is a series of economic laws decreed by President Chavez last month which will affect vital areas of the economy ranging from agriculture to the petroleum industry. Mr. Chavez says the measures - like the Land Reform Law which allows for land redistribution - will promote economic growth, while redressing decades of social injustice. But Fedecamaras and its allies say the laws undermine free enterprise and violate the concept of private property.

On Monday in the midst of the national shutdown, the Venezuelan leader vowed to carry out the laws despite opposition. He said what he called his peaceful and democratic revolution will not be stopped. He says, let those who want to see and hear, and those who do not, know that this revolution will not be reversed. Mr. Chavez went on to warn his political opponents against trying to stop him, saying he will buy a pair of pliers to, as he put it, tighten the screws against his opponents.

Fedecamaras President Pedro Carmona, who led the successful strike, deplored Mr. Chavez' rhetoric and hard line. Speaking on local television Tuesday, Mr. Carmona said it is now up to the Congress, which is controlled by the President's party, and the Supreme Court to modify the President's laws. He says, these institutions need to play a historic role, and correct the negative posture by the executive. He went on to describe Mr. Chavez' reaction as irrational.

If this does not happen, Venezuela may face further strikes and unrest. Political analyst Eric Ekvall says Mr. Chavez may have put himself into a box. "Chavez has turned this into a personal issue, jutting his jaw out Mussolini-like and saying he won't back down on, for example, the Land Reform Act. It is now no longer a matter of reviewing the laws, or having the laws changed or something," says Mr. Ekvall. "Implicitly the opposition to Chavez is calling for his removal and that's the implicit message of the strike, because he says he's not going to budge and that the laws aren't going to change. So that ups the ante. It's no longer the laws but Chavez himself."

For now, it's not clear how or if the opposition can drive Mr. Chavez from office. Under the constitution, they can gather signatures to hold a referendum to recall him, but not until 2004, two years short of the end of Mr. Chavez' term. What is clear is that after the success of Monday's strike, Venezuela's opposition feels it is strong enough so that it will not have to wait that long to effect major changes.

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