Venezuela's largest business federation, Fedecamaras, has voted unanimously to stage a 12-hour stoppage December 10 to protest a package of land use laws announced earlier this month by President Hugo Chavez. The strike, backed by opposition parties as well as the main labor unions, is the biggest challenge yet to President Chavez's three-year old government.
President Chavez has had an uneasy relationship with the country's private sector since coming to power in 1999. A left leaning former army officer, who once attempted to overthrow the government, the president blames what he likes to call "the oligarchy" and its allies in Venezuela's traditional political parties for the country's decline into poverty and social chaos.
But until now the conflict had remained largely at the level of rhetoric. A score of decrees unveiled in mid-November, however, has proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. The laws affected vital areas of the country's economy, including the oil industry, agriculture and fisheries.
Business organizations said they were not properly consulted and that many of the laws are unconstitutional and violate the principle of private property.
The land law, for instance, will permit local officials to seize any farms deemed to be unproductive and distribute them to landless peasants, giving owners only ten days to produce the relevant documentation. Land use will be subject to government directives on what can be produced where.
The president responded that he is open to dialogue on the matter, and even delegated his defense minister, Jose Vicente Rangel, to conduct talks. But he insisted there can be no change to the laws and said business leaders are merely defending the privileges of an elite.
Just hours before Fedecamaras met to discuss next month's stoppage, the president challenged them to go ahead, saying the country would see who was stronger, the oligarchs or the people. He added that he was not worried, since a Fedecamaras stoppage would look good on his "revolutionary resume".
Not everyone is so unconcerned, however. Commentators pointed out that the Chavez government has achieved the unprecedented feat of uniting Fedecamaras and the leadership of the CTV, Venezuela's labor confederation, as well as much of civil society. Every opposition party called for the president to reconsider or resign. If he rejects its appeal, the opposition argued, the country could be headed for serious unrest in the months ahead.