Venezuela: Will This Showdown Topple Chavez?

Tension is rising palpably in Caracas as the clock ticks down to Dec. 2, the day that opponents of Venezuela President Hugo Chávez have declared yet another general strike aimed at forcing him to hold an immediate referendum on his rule. It would be the fourth strike in less than a year in the confrontation between Chávez and a loosely knit coalition linking representatives of opposition political parties, labor, business, the military, and the Catholic church.

What makes this strike different? Unlike previous one-day actions, Chávez' leading opponents aim to shut the country down for a minimum of 72 hours. That means the strike would last through Dec. 4, the deadline for the country's National Electoral Council (CNE) to rule on the opposition's petition for an immediate referendum on Chávez' presidency. Almost no one expects Chávez to agree to a vote even if the CNE backs the petition. That's why most Chávez opponents want a strike no matter what the CNE does, and some call for an indefinite walkout until the President firmly agrees to the referendum or resigns. "We are absolutely sure that [this strike] will be a lot more forceful than other strikes," Antonio Ledezma, a top opposition leader, told a Nov. 21 press conference.

The two sides are playing a complicated game. According to Venezuela's constitution, a binding referendum on Chávez' presidency cannot be held until halfway through his term--or next August. A defeat would trigger new elections. Even though Chávez has indicated he might accept a vote then, the opposition wants a non-binding referendum now. They feel Chávez would lose so badly he'd have to resign. But the opposition is risking its own popularity by calling a strike when the economy is reeling. The country's gross domestic product has contracted 6.4% this year, largely because of the 48% devaluation of Venezuela's currency. The economy will be hammered if state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela joins an extended walkout.

Meanwhile, Chávez, whose popularity has fallen from 80% in 1999 to 30% today, is playing hardball. He recently ordered the army to take over the city police force in Caracas, where Mayor Alfredo Pena is a Chávez opponent. Now, armed soldiers guard police stations, and the army has seized the police officers' rifles. "The criminals are better armed than [we are] now," grumbles police Captain Carlos Guerra. Chávez can also call on the National Guard and on radical supporters known as Bolivarian Circles. "We are sure that [Chávez] is going to develop repressive and violent activities against the opposition," says William Davila, another opposition leader.

Frantic efforts are under way to find a peaceful solution, quietly backed by the Bush Administration. César Gaviria, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), wants the opposition to accept an August referendum, and use the time until then to hash out a program and agree on candidates to run against Chávez. A gradual transition "could be positive for the country," says Peter F. Romero, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

For now, Chávez and the opposition are still digging in. The likely winner for now is Chávez, since he has the firepower and can claim to have the constitution on his side. The opposition may be hoping for a "people-power" revolution, wherein millions take to the streets, forcing him to resign. If that doesn't materialize, the opposition will be left with few choices other than waiting until Chávez must allow a vote on his presidency. Losing this month's battle may be a prelude to winning next year's war.

By Stephen Ixer in Caracas, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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