Image: Venezuela Strike
Police officers scuffle with opposition demonstrators blocking a street in Caracas on Wednesday.
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msnbc.com

The holiday spirit of goodwill has failed to infect the political discourse in Venezuela, a nation on the brink of collapse. After three weeks of clamorous street demonstrations, virulent rhetoric and futile international mediation, a resolution appears more distant than ever, according to analysts based in the beleaguered Latin American nation.

“There is a solution out there,” said Janet Kelly, a political analyst based in Caracas, referring to a non-binding referendum set for February that could be used as a launching pad for changes to the Constitution, which might then pave the way for an early election.

But instead both sides were playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship, Kelly said.

Meantime, the South American nation with a population of 24 million and the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere has been stuck in a political gridlock since the opposition called a general strike on Dec. 2.

“I think that tensions and passions are so overheated at this point that there is a complete lack of trust that any agreement can be worked out,” said Erik Ekvall, a business consultant based in the Venezuelan capital.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria — a former president of Colombia — has led efforts to salvage an agreement. On Wednesday, he said talks had advanced, “but we are not near a solution.”

POLARIZING FIGURE

Above and beyond the constitutional issues, the debate in Venezuela revolves around the polarizing figure of Hugo Chavez, the soldier-turned-populist politician who was elected president in 1998.

In a country where at least two-thirds of the population struggles along below the official poverty line, the former paratrooper offered hope of a better future.

Chavez vowed to disassemble the power structure in Venezuela, a lucrative and cozy alliance between the business elite, elements of the military and the Catholic Church and the international oil oligarchy.

He promised jobs and an economic structure that would extend the beneficiaries of Venezuela’s bountiful patrimony, its 77 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

COURTING CONTROVERSY

Meantime, Chavez also courted controversy with Venezuela’s erstwhile close ally, the United States — a major customer for its oil and once a close ally.

The president showered praise on Cuban leader Fidel Castro, his best friend in the region, while paying respects to two other Washington foes, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Ghadaffi, during state visits in 2000.

Moreover, Chavez broke with the regional consensus by publicly fraternizing with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the leftist group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

Overall, his behavior has shaped a U.S. stance that has progressed from quiet tolerance to undisguised animosity under the administration of President Bush.

In April, Washington was accused of abandoning its democratic principles by swiftly heralding a new Venezuelan leadership created by a coup. Chavez was reinstalled after the takeover collapsed.

And this month, the White House appeared to side with the opposition by calling for early elections in Venezuela.

IT’S THE ECONOMY

But thumbing his nose at the United States has not been Chavez’s undoing — it’s been the economy.

According to Moody’s Investors Service, the economy weakened substantially in the first half of 2002, with GDP growth falling by more than 7 percent and interest rates spiking as the government tried to prevent capital flight, mainly by the nervous business sector.

For Chavez’s bedrock supporters — the poor — this has meant an official unemployment level of over 16 percent in August, up from around 10 percent two years ago.

Meantime, the president has struggled to install a government-friendly management of the nation’s cash cow, the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela Sociedad Anónima, known as PDVSA.

The oil sector accounts for about one-third of Venezuela’s gross domestic product, 50 percent of its tax revenue and 80 percent of its exports.

While the 3-week-old strike against Chavez has only partially disrupted the rest of the economy, it has frozen the oil sector, slowing exports to a trickle and bumping up global oil prices.

On Thursday, a day after Chavez branded oil workers “traitors,” Venezuela’s Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt to an oil industry strike.

The court said it was considering a motion filed by a PDVSA executive asking the justices to declare the strike illegal.

In his address late Wednesday to a gathering of thousands in Caracas, Chavez presented the strikes as an attack on his revolution.

He added, “I swear to you by Baby Jesus and Jesus Christ that I will be with you until the last day of my life.”

NO COMPROMISE

The typical Chavez bombast underscored the president’s refusal to deal with the opposition’s demands.

He has denounced the organizers as coup plotters and insisted that the Constitution forbids a new election until at least the summer of 2003.

“All the marches are not going to shake the Chavez administration, are not going to cause soul searching or redefinition of the issues,” said Ekvall, who has advised political candidates in the past. “It’s an almost unbearable tense situation — it’s the immovable object against an irresistible force.”

Ekvall likened Chavez to President Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean leader who has been treated as a pariah by many Western nations.

“Chavez is really indifferent to what would otherwise be legitimate political pressures and international public opinion,” he said.

However, political scientist Carlos Romero said that the opposition shared the blame for the impasse.

He noted that anti-Chavez groups have escalated their demands from calling for a consultative referendum to seeking immediate general elections and now the resignation of the president.

“We can’t have negotiations because we don’t have a general framework of understanding,” he said.

Meantime, the middle ground is shrinking in Venezuela.

“The middle and moderate block is not in a good condition now,” Romero said. “We are now entering a time in which the government offers repression and the opposition is looking toward some kind of anarchy.”

(Sean Federico-O’Murchu is an international producer/editor with MSNBC.com.The Associated Press contributed to this report. )

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