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Venezuela - 2003-02-13

The price of oil on the world market has risen in recent months partly because of concern about a possible war with Iraq. Another contributing factor has been the political unrest in Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest petroleum producer. Opponents of Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, have shut down much of the state-owned oil company’s operations and only in recent days ended a strike that closed down most of the South American nation’s commercial sector for two months. Greg Flakus brings us details from Caracas.

The appearance of normality is returning to Caracas, but the political crisis in Venezuela is far from over.President Hugo Chavez has declared victory over his opponents—whom he refers to as “oligarchs” and “coup plotters.”

But the most recent public opinion polls show that nearly 70 percent of Venezuelans are against him and Anti-Chavez demonstrations are an almost daily event. And the strike continues in the state-owned oil company, which supplies a third of the government’s revenue.

The president’s supporters, in turn, stage their own protests. Many Venezuelans feel caught in the middle of this strife and long for a return to normalcy. Out of work tour guide Raul blames both sides.

“I voted for Mr. Chavez, but I am against some of his politics that I don’t like it. But even worse is the opposition party came on power and did all this strike. Now, I am out of work because of these people.”

An end to the crisis does not seem close as the gap widens between the mostly middle class of the opposition and the mainly poor and working class Chavistas—as Chavez supporters are called.

In an effort to bridge the gap and end the strife, diplomats from six nations— the so-called “friends of Venezuela” have backed the mission of Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria to bring about a negotiated settlement to open the way to an election.

But Mr. Chavez insists that no referendum on his rule can be held until August under rules set by the current constitution.

His opponents have collected millions of signatures on petitions calling for a constitutional amendment to make an early election possible. Political analyst Ricardo Sucre, who has tried to remain neutral in this crisis, says the opposition has failed so far.

“The opposition strike failed in the sense that it did not lead to the removal of Mr. Chavez, but it did bring Venezuela to the world’s attention and it may lead now to a more traditional electoral resolution of the crisis.”

While most Chavez opponents live in the Venezuela represented by the modern buildings of Caracas, the 30 percent or more of the population supporting President Chavez is mostly found in the slums on the hills surrounding the city.

Mr. Sucre says once an electoral solution is found, there must be an effort to develop a national consensus to unite the country.

Both sides favor a peaceful solution, but that could still be a long way down the road.