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Venezuelans Somber During Christmas Season - 2002-12-25

This is a somber Christmas in Venezuela, where people are enduring shortages of fuel, food and other goods amid a struggle between the government and the country's opposition.

Eight-year-old Joana sits with her little brother, Martin, in a Caracas plaza while her parents search for last-minute Christmas items from street vendors nearby. She says something feels wrong this holiday season. Joana says, there are not many signs of Christmas, at least where I live. She says, almost no one has put up anything pretty in their homes.

Walk the streets of Caracas, and you would hardly know it is Christmas. The city is virtually devoid of the sights, sounds and smells people associate with this time of year. One has to look far and wide to find decorations of any kind. Few people wear smiles on their faces, and the only Christmas music this reporter has heard in more than a week has come from an overhead audio system in a hotel lobby.

At Caracas' Basilica of Santa Teresa, church-goer Veruska Zorrilla says it is not hard to figure out what is wrong. Ms. Zorrilla says, the problem is Venezuela's political situation. She says, I do not sense any Christmas spirit, especially not on the streets. Off to one side of the basilica, Ms. Zorrilla lights a candle and places it among scores of others. Ms. Zorrilla says, I lit a yellow candle, because for me that color represents light. She says, I wanted to give thanks for the fact that, despite the situation we face in Venezuela, my family and loved ones are all together. She says she hopes that, next year, Christmas will be different, more like the ones of years past.

Across Venezuela, people are feeling the effects of an opposition-led national strike designed to force President Hugo Chavez' ouster. The work stoppage has virtually shut down oil production, crippling transit and commerce.

Monday, the opposition rejected a government call for a holiday truce, saying there can be no Christmas so long as Mr. Chavez remains in power. In a televised message to the nation Tuesday, the president expressed hope for a spirit of peace during the holidays. But fireworks street vendor Mercedes Escobar says there is no peace or happiness to be found in Venezuela. She says the people are not in a celebratory mood, and her wares are not selling. Ms. Escobar says, this Christmas is not like others. She says everyone you see on the streets is tense. But, she says, we have to be united, not divided.

At the basilica, Veruska Zorrilla gazes at the candle she has just lit. She says she has one wish for the holidays. Ms. Zorrilla says, that things get better in Venezuela, and that everything that is happening on the political front does not have bad consequences for the country. She says, I fear next year will be a difficult one for us, and we will have challenges to meet.

For her part, eight-year-old Joana says she knows exactly what she wants for Christmas. Joana says, peace, happiness and love for my family.