Almost two years after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was briefly ousted in a coup, the South American nation continues to suffer from a devastating political crisis. Instead of coming together to reach a consensus on the future of the country, pro-government and opposition forces have retreated to opposite camps. Participants at a recent conference in Washington said that as the political stalemate drags on, Venezuela?s economy spirals downward, and unemployment and poverty rates soar. VOA?s Serena Parker takes a closer look at the standoff.

Venezuela?s political turmoil has come to look a lot like one of its most popular exports: the television soap opera, according to Miguel Diaz, Director of the South America Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. ?To me, the Venezuelan political drama is like a soap opera,? he says. ?Just when you think there?s going to be a happy ending, there?s a new twist, a new kink that comes to bear. And it changes the whole drama.?

The latest plot twist came this February 17 when President Hugo Chavez accused the United States of backing the April 2002 coup against him. The United States denied the charges and accused Mr. Chavez of resorting to such tactics in an effort to divert attention away from the Venezuelan opposition?s legal and constitutional effort to challenge President Chavez?s rule.

According to Venezuela?s constitution, at least 20% of the electorate must sign a petition to trigger a referendum. Opposition leaders say they have more than enough signatures, but Mr. Chavez has dismissed the referendum petition as a ?mega-fraud.? Venezuela?s National Electoral Council is studying the signatures. If the electoral council determines that enough signatures were collected to force a recall vote, it has another 90 days to hold the election. June would be the earliest a referendum could be held on whether to remove President Chavez.

After a landslide victory brought him to power in 1998, Mr. Chavez held a series of successful referendums that rewrote the Venezuela constitution to bring it more in-line with his social movement. But Norman Bailey, senior fellow at the Potomac Foundation, an international security and economic research organization here in Washington, says Mr. Chavez is planning to violate the same constitution that he helped create. While President Chavez initially promised to respect the electoral council?s decision, he now says that if the council certifies a referendum, he will refuse to honor the ruling. Instead, he says he will take the battle to the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which he has stacked with allies.

Analyst Norman Bailey says Hugo Chavez needs to be told to respect his country?s constitution: ?The United States, the Organization of American States, the Carter Center, the U.N., whomever, should keep the pressure on constantly and publicly to tell the Chavez regime: ?We expect you to respect your own constitution. We?re not asking you to change it. We?re not asking you to do anything that?s not in the constitution. We expect you to act constitutionally. We expect you to do that. The international community expects it. The hemisphere expects it.

If the government refuses to hold a recall referendum, the opposition will have run out of constitutional means to challenge Mr. Chavez until the next presidential election in 2006. Norman Bailey says that election may come too late for Venezuela?s struggling democracy. Just look at the opposition in Cuba, he says, where Fidel Castro, a close friend of Hugo Chavez, has ruled for more than 40 years. ?Where is the Cuban opposition now he asks. ?It?s in Miami or it?s in jail. By 2006, the Venezuelan opposition will be in Miami or in jail.?

The Organization of American States, the United Nations and the Atlanta-based Carter Center have been working with both sides to come to a peaceful, democratic solution. But if the Chavez government refuses to follow the very constitution that it wrote, international observers may pull out. Miguel Diaz from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that would eliminate the one voice of reason in Venezuela. ?There is still in Venezuela ? and there will be for a long time ? a lack of fair brokers in this political debate,? he says. ?The Church, the media, even political parties, have lost the ability to serve as bridge builders.?

Miguel Diaz adds that Venezuela?s democracy took a severe beating after the 2002 coup. He says that after Mr. Chavez was restored to power, the opposition alienated many Venezuelans with a nationwide strike in late 2002 and early 2003. Mr. Diaz, who was born in Venezuela and still has family there, says that as a result of the two-month strike, some of his cousins who once supported the opposition now back Hugo Chavez.

?And the reason they became converts, in my view, was that they felt the opposition, the economic elite, were terribly irresponsible in calling for the strike and leaving them to the winds of the markets to fend for themselves,? Mr. Diaz says. ?After two or three months of looking for employment, they found jobs working for the government. And as a result ? and given the very politicized nature of anything in Venezuela ? they feel somewhat obliged to support the government.?

Venezuela?s economy has been battered by the ongoing political turmoil. Most economists agree that record high oil prices are the only thing keeping Venezuela?s economy from collapsing. The country is a major oil producer and one of the top U.S. suppliers. Yet despite high oil prices, the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar, is trading at close to two thousand bolivars to the U.S. dollar. The weak currency and volatile exchange is squeezing the country?s business-owners, many of whom are key opposition leaders.

Luis Guisiti, former president and CEO of Petroleos de Venezuela, Venezuela?s state-owned oil company, thinks this is no accident. He says the Chavez government is using oil revenues to fund social programs for the poor, thus winning their support. As for the middle class and business owners -- Mr. Guisiti says the president is happy to watch them suffer. ?What is happening in Venezuela now,? he says, ?is the government is essentially trying to annihilate any sector, any person, that is not an active member of the revolution in support of the government. And that has created a very divisive political agenda.?

When the government isn?t trying to drive the opposition out of the country, Luis Guisiti says, it?s using force to intimidate it. He points to February 14 when tens-of-thousands of opposition members marched through the capital, Caracas, to protest the National Electoral Council?s delay in issuing its finding on the recall signature drive. ?When you look back at the march that happened in Venezuela,? he says, ?the big parade of the people a few days ago, and you see the attitude of the military forces -- pointing guns, and tanks and snipers and everything -- there is a spirit there that certainly has nothing to do with what we know about democracy.?

Venezuela?s National Electoral Council, divided between three directors widely considered sympathetic to Mr. Chavez and two seen as pro-opposition, is expected to rule on the validity of the petition drive on February 29. Many observers fear that even if the council validates the signatures, the Chavez government will refuse to honor the recall referendum. They warn that months of relative calm in Venezuela could give way to violent clashes between opposition and pro-government supporters.