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Political Unrest in Venezuela Far From Over - 2003-02-05


In Venezuela, opponents of President Hugo Chavez have lifted most of the general strike that shut down the South American nation's commercial sector for two months. But, the political unrest in that country is far from over.

Opposition leaders say they have eased the strike in order to prevent businesses from going bankrupt. A strike in the oil sector continues, with production only about a third of what it was before the strike began. In addition, opposition protest marches and rallies have become daily events in Caracas.

In his speeches, the fiery Mr. Chavez says his opponents are losing in their attempt to undermine him.

He says the same people who failed to oust him in a coup attempt last April are now trying to destabilize the Venezuelan economy in order to force him from power. President Chavez refers to his enemies as "coup plotters" and "oligarchs."

The failed coup has bolstered Mr. Chavez by providing material evidence that at least some of his opponents are disposed to use non-democratic means to remove him. His supporters, who mainly come from the poorer areas of the country, look at the mostly middle-class leaders of the opposition as people who seek control of the country for their own purposes. They see Mr. Chavez as the champion of the poor.

Many Venezuelans remain on the sidelines, watching the gap between Mr. Chavez and his opponents deepen, while their country sinks further into recession.

Raul, an out of work tour guide, is frustrated by the continuing strife. "I voted for Mr. Chavez, but I am against some of his politics that I do not like," he said. "But even worse is the opposition parties who did all this strike. Now, I am out of work because of these people."

Ricardo Sucre is a political science professor who, like Raul, criticizes both sides. He says the opposition strategy has failed in its main objective, but that it has not failed completely.

He says the strike failed to drive Mr. Chavez from power and may, in fact, have bought him more time. He says the strike has succeeded in one aspect, however, that of gaining the world's attention. He says, Mr. Chavez is very sensitive to world opinion.

Mr. Sucre says Mr. Chavez sparked this crisis by winning a democratic election and then trying to rule without regard to the normal controls imposed by a democratic system. He says Mr. Chavez is trying to impose what he calls a "revolutionary program" by altering the nation's basic institutions, something that angers opponents.

Mr. Sucre says the only way out of the current crisis is to follow the plan set forth by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on January 21. The Carter plan calls for either a referendum on Mr. Chavez's rule in August, which is allowed under the current constitution, or by modifying the constitution so that full elections can be held earlier.

This plan has the backing of the Organization of American States and diplomats from the six nations called "friends of Venezuela."

Mr. Sucre says some form of program to unify the nation must follow a political solution.

He says there is no doubt that Venezuela is a deeply divided country. To some extent, he says, these divisions have always been there. He says the notion that all was well before Mr. Chavez came to power and that rich and poor walked together in peace is a myth. But he says there is no doubt that Mr. Chavez has followed a policy of pitting classes against each other and that he must bear responsibility for having deepened social divisions.

Ricardo Sucre says the only way out of the crisis is through a democratic process, that is, elections. But he says that whether Mr. Chavez goes or stays, the deep divisions in society will remain until an effort is made to develop a national program that addresses the needs of all sectors.

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