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Venezuelan Opposition in Search of a Leader


Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are struggling to maintain their unity and momentum, more than a month after ending a general strike that halted much of the nation's commercial activity.

A coup attempt that briefly removed President Chavez from power last April failed. The two-month strike that opposition leaders started in early December also failed to oust the populist leader. Since that time, authorities have placed one prominent opposition leader under arrest, and forced others into hiding. Chavez supporters say they now have the momentum, and that the opposition has been weakened.

Political analyst Anibal Romero, who has long opposed Mr. Chavez, says the opposition has made errors, and that there is now a need to regroup.

"The leadership of the Venezuelan Democratic Opposition is not as good as we would want it to be," he said. "We do not have one leader who can fight Chavez on his own terms and on the same fields of political struggle. We have deficiencies in that sense."

But Mr. Romero says it is vital that the diverse elements that have come together against Mr. Chavez keep working together. He says divisions in the movement would only favor the president. He says the focus now is on holding a binding referendum on Chavez rule, in August.

"I hope they all come to the same conclusion, and work together to make sure that the referendum does take place, as mandated by the constitution," added Mr. Romero.

Two months ago, the opposition was demanding an earlier referendum, but President Chavez insisted that no vote could be held before August, under terms set by the constitution. Whether a referendum will be held then or not remains unclear, as the two sides wrangle in court and in meetings held under the auspices of the Organization of American States.

Anibal Romero says the political solution is only one part of the challenge facing his country. International banks are predicting a more than 40 percent decline in economic growth in the first quarter of this year. Mr. Romero says it is important to end the political crisis and get the country moving again.

"There is no investment. People are losing their jobs," he said. "Lots of firms are closing their doors every day. Poverty is on the increase. We have the worst numbers in Latin America with regard to inflation, to unemployment, to rate of increase in poverty, and so on and so forth."

Deep economic and social divisions have been at the heart of this crisis, and may continue to vex the country, even if Mr. Chavez were to leave power. Mr. Chavez finds his core of support in poor communities, where the opposition leaders are viewed as wealthy oligarchs who crave power for themselves.

Mr. Chavez has shown little inclination to compromise with the opposition leaders, whom he continues to refer to as "golpistas," which, loosely translated from Spanish, means "coup-mongers." Government representatives failed to show up for a meeting with opposition counterparts this week. Another meeting is scheduled for next week, but there is little hope that advances will result from it.