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Political Divisions Deepen in Venezuela After Two Demonstrations - 2002-10-14

Growing political polarization in Venezuela is threatening the stability of one of the world's major oil producers. Two massive demonstrations have sharpened the country's political divisions.

The two demonstrations, one last Thursday by the opposition demanding President Hugo Chavez step down or call early elections, the other by pro-Chavez supporters on Sunday, drew hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans.

The opposition that groups together labor, business, and civic groups said more than one million people took part in its march against the populist President. On Sunday, Mr. Chavez said two million people turned out in his support.

Whatever the numbers, it is clear the demonstrations are a sign of deep divisions in Venezuelan society. Marching for the opposition Thursday, translator Luis Sayago expressed a common sentiment when he vowed to continue demonstrating until President Chavez leaves office.

"It is a process, if we have to come out tomorrow again, we go out tomorrow again, OK. It is not this march, tomorrow it could be the same march as today, and the day after tomorrow the same thing. They tell us to come out on the street tomorrow, we come out on the street tomorrow," Mr. Sayago said.

Following the march, the opposition warned that if Mr. Chavez does not meet its demands in the next few days it will stage a general strike on October 21.

The last general strike, in April, was part of a series of events that led to Mr. Chavez' brief ouster by elements of the military. He was returned to power in less than 48 hours by loyalist troops and his supporters.

On Sunday, Mr. Chavez dismissed the opposition's strike threat, and vowed to remain in office until his term ends in early 2007.

The result of all this is a political standoff.

Newspaper publisher Teodoro Petkoff of Tal Cual newspaper said despite the success of Thurday's opposition march, Mr. Chavez still has substantial support. He said Mr. Chavez has the solid support of about 30 to 35 percent of the population, which is good for a Latin American leader, after several years of poor performance. Mr. Petkoff said that even though the military is fractured, the Venezuelan leader appears to have the support of the high command.

This is a far cry from the days when Mr. Chavez had approval ratings of more than 80 percent.

He won the 1998 presidential election by an overwhelming margin with promises to launch a social revolution that would end corruption and alleviate widespread poverty in the oil-rich nation.

But his leftist and divisive rhetoric, his friendship for communist Cuba, and other actions eroded much of his support. Despite Venezuela's oil wealth, the economy is struggling with growing unemployment, higher inflation, and a weakening currency.

Political scientist Janet Kelly said all this has made many Venezuelans desperate. "You get a kind of ironic situation, in which people even start wanting Chavez to give up and leave, not because they think the opposition is so right, but because they can not stand it any longer. They can not stand the tension, they can not stand the lack of productivity, the obsession with the country, this sort of collective depression the psychiatrists are talking about all the time...the country is abnormal," she said.

Mr. Chavez has pledged to submit to a recall referendum, as provided for by the constitution, midway through his six-year term, in August 2003. But the opposition has said the country cannot wait that long.

The prospect then is for more demonstrations as each side tries to counter the other. Analyst Kelly said these deepening divisions have had one effect that could be considered positive: increasing political participation in a society that was once politically apathetic.

But Ms. Kelly says this heightened mobilization also has serious drawbacks for the country. "The question that any political scientist would ask is whether normal politics can take place with an overmobilized society. When you have to solve political issues by putting a million people on the streets, as opposed to letting the members of Congress fight it out on the floor while you go about your business, is a good question. So you do want to have participatory democracy, you do want to have people involved with politics and caring about it, but that is not the same as saying you want to have a democracy that is dominated by street politics and mass movements," she said.

The next test of strength will come October 21, when business and labor plan to go on strike to put further pressure on Mr. Chavez.