A thriving black market in gasoline has emerged in Venezuela, which has one of the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East. Cargo ships pick up groceries for the nation at government expense in Colombian ports. The state oil company -- once considered well-run, now largely shuttered -- may face lasting damage if it is not restarted soon.
This is a grim snapshot of a teetering Venezuela 50 days into a general strike and political standoff that continue to defy a number of seemingly sensible solutions. Despite growing economic damage and social unrest, neither President Hugo Chavez nor the organized opposition seeking to remove him from office has given ground on several proposals that diplomats here say should, according to normal logic, bring agreement within reach, arrest the economic decline and head off fresh violence.
A number of diplomats, political analysts and opposition members say the central reason for the stalemate is simple, if misunderstood by outsiders, particularly in the United States.
Chavez, they say, believes Venezuela's public and private institutions must be broken down for his revolution to take root. Throughout his divisive four years in office, Chavez has viewed moments of political strife, some of his own design, as opportunities to remake institutions opposed to his political program. Indeed, he has described the current standoff, during which five people have died in street violence, as a natural part of the revolutionary process.
But his "Bolivarian revolution," a potent brand of populist nationalism named for the 19th-century liberation hero, Simon Bolivar, has bumped up against an equally powerful nostalgia among some opposition leaders for the hermetic two-party system that dominated Venezuelan politics before Chavez's election in 1998. As a result, the opposition appears unable to embrace any solution that would not take the nation back to those days, when power alternated between the Democratic Action Party, a Social Democratic group, and Copei, its Christian Democratic counterpart.
The clashing visions have deadlocked negotiations supervised by Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, to end a crisis that has consumed Venezuela for a year. As Chavez recently told a cheering crowd, "The revolution cannot be negotiated."
In coming weeks, the United States will join negotiations to end the crisis as part of a six-country advisory group designed to strengthen Gaviria's hand. The U.S. participation comes as Venezuela's pre-strike delivery of 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the United States -- about 15 percent of U.S. oil imports -- has slowed to a trickle, as concerns mount that a possible war in Iraq would reduce Middle East oil shipments.
At the same time, frustrated opposition leaders have increasingly singled out the United States for aggravating the situation by failing to come down hard immediately on Chavez, who as an army lieutenant colonel in 1992 led an unsuccessful coup against the elected government of Carlos Andres Perez. In their view, the United States failed to understand that Chavez from the beginning had ambitions to alter Venezuela fundamentally in ways hostile to U.S. -- and their -- interests.
Since his election on a pledge to help Venezuela's poor -- a majority in the nation of 23 million people -- Chavez has looked and sounded like a Cold War-era revolutionary. He has favored military fatigues over business suits, delivered marathon speeches he ordered to be carried on private television channels and expressed admiration for Cuba's President Fidel Castro. Chavez called the rich "rancid oligarchs," labeled the Catholic Church a "tumor" on Venezuelan society and warned opposition media owners to tell the truth.
The initial U.S. approach to Chavez, formulated by then-Ambassador John F. Maisto, now on the National Security Council staff, was to judge him by actions, not words. That changed in October 2001, after Chavez criticized the U.S. war in Afghanistan and decreed a series of populist reforms that appeared to exceed his authority. In addition, he had organized several successful referendums that gave the country a new constitution tailored to his rule and was reelected in 2000 with a higher percentage of support.
Last April, when Chavez was ousted in a military-led coup d'etat, the White House quickly endorsed an interim government installed by the coup leaders. But the coup collapsed two days later and Chavez returned in triumph to the presidential palace. He then purged the military's upper ranks, and the troops have so far remained solidly behind him throughout the current crisis.
"The United States made a giant mistake adopting a pragmatic attitude toward Chavez, something they did ironically to guarantee a stable oil supply," said Alberto Garrido, a political analyst who has written several books on the roots of Chavez's political program. "Here, there is a clash of systems, something that neither Gaviria nor the United States understands. For this reason, no negotiation is possible."
Believing he is defeating his opponents, this view holds, Chavez has little incentive to end a standoff that appears to be accomplishing what many politicians and analysts here say are his long-term goals. Venezuela's private sector, long the source of resistance to his program, is withering under the weight of the strike. The National Institute for the Development of Small and Medium Size Industry warned Thursday that 10,000 small and medium-size businesses, 50 percent of such enterprises, are in danger of collapse.
"Fidel had to fight the bourgeoisie to defeat them," said Pastor Heydra, a congressman from the opposition Democratic Action Party. "Here, the bourgeoisie is killing itself."
At Petroleos de Venezuela, the state oil company that provides the government with nearly half of its $20 billion budget, Chavez has used the strike to fire 2,000 dissident employees. The likely result, said diplomats and oil analysts here, will be a company as politically pliable as the Venezuelan military since the president's post-April purge.
"They've handed themselves to Chavez on a platter," one foreign diplomat here said. "One of the things driving this strike is a sense of desperation that in Chavez's Venezuela there will be no place for the professional people of [the state oil company] or anyone else like them."
In recent weeks, Gaviria has placed much of the blame on the government for refusing to accept an agreement on an early presidential election; under the constitution, presidential elections are scheduled for 2006. Chavez has also refused to accept a nonbinding referendum on his administration set for Feb. 2, calling it unconstitutional. Venezuela's high court has yet to rule on the issue. He sent National Guard troops into a bottling plant affiliated with the Coca-Cola Co. on Friday to make sure soft drinks were distributed despite the strike.
Allowing a clean vote on Feb. 2 might be enough for the opposition to lift the strike, people close to the talks have said, but Chavez has refused to consider the idea. He said only a binding referendum on his administration, which could be held as early as Aug. 19, would be constitutional.
"They don't want any elections," said Rafael Alfonzo, an opposition negotiator. "If he loses in conflict, rather than elections, he will always be seen as a hero by his people."
But the opposition has failed to present an alternative political program, while misreading foreign governments that seem reluctant to challenge the legitimacy of a twice-elected president. Before the strike, many opposition leaders said they believed the United States and the OAS would weigh in against Chavez, whom they accuse of weakening essential state institutions to the extent that there are now no checks on his power. No such support has materialized.
Hoping to convince U.S. officials of their claim that they are battling a dictator disguised as a democrat, opposition leaders traveled to Washington and New York last week. They have also been informally consulting with James Carville, a Democratic strategist, for ideas to better explain their cause abroad.
"It seems like no one wants to end this for the good of the country," said a person close to the negotiations. "No one on either side."