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Opposition Strike in Venezuela Shows Signs of Weakening - 2003-01-30

After nearly two-months, the opposition strike in Venezuela is showing signs of weakening, but the divide between those who oppose and those who support President Hugo Chavez remains wide.

The large shopping malls remain closed, but many smaller shops are open. Supermarkets still have shortages, but quite a few restaurants and bars are open at night.

Most gasoline stations are closed, and people wait in long lines at the ones that are open, yet, vehicles still circulate on Caracas streets, using fuel brought in by boat from other countries.

The general strike that shut down almost all commerce in Venezuela since December 2 is starting to come undone. Little by little, merchants are opening their doors, or expanding hours of operation, if they were already open. Owners of shopping centers, theaters and other popular destinations say they expect to open next week.

The Venezuelan Banking Council has decided to reopen banks to the public on Monday. President Chavez had brought pressure on the bankers by threatening to withdraw armed forces funds from the banks.

But Banking Council Vice President Nelson Mezerhane says that pressure had nothing to do with the decision to reopen.

He says the pressure felt by the banking sector came from the clients whose deposits the banks hold. For the past two-months, the banks have been open only a few hours a day, leading to long lines and severe restrictions on financial transactions.

The strike has cost Venezuela more than $4 billion, and the economy is expected to show a 25 percent contraction this year as a result. The nation's currency, the Bolivar, has lost nearly 30 percent of its value.

Oil production in this, the world's fifth largest producer, fell as low as 200,000 barrels-a-day last month. Last week, the government managed to move production back up to about one-million-barrels-a-day, but that is still only about a third of what used to be produced.

The weakening of the strike in the banking and commercial sector is seen by Chavez supporters as a victory for their side, but opposition leaders say their struggle is not over. The strike in the oil industry continues, with 35,000 of the nation's 40,000 oil workers remaining at home.

Hundreds of anti-Chavez protesters gather every evening at a plaza in the fashionable Altamira section of Caracas to listen to anti-Chavez speeches and songs. The divergent elements of the opposition remain united on their principal goal, that of removing Mr. Chavez from power.

In a smaller plaza, in a working-class neighborhood a few kilometers away, Chavez supporters hold nightly meetings that draw smaller crowds. Public opinion polls indicate that around 30 percent of Venezuelans back President Chavez. His mostly poor supporters deride the opposition leaders as "oligarchs" and say that only Mr. Chavez cares about the poor.

International diplomatic efforts to end the political conflict in Venezuela are showing signs of progress. Representatives of the six nations referred to as "friends of Venezuela" have begun arriving in Caracas for meetings Friday with government and opposition leaders.

The diplomats from the United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain, and Portugal are pressing for a solution, based on proposals set forth by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on January 21. Under the Carter plan, there would either be a recall referendum in August, or a change to the constitution that would allow for early elections.