Venezuela's crippled private sector largely abandoned a 64-day general strike against the government of President Hugo Chavez today, with most banks, shopping malls and schools opening in a boost to the resilient populist leader.
Traffic thickened around the capital, free of the large opposition street protests that have taken place almost daily since the strike started Dec. 2. Many shopping malls that had been shuttered through the Christmas season opened to moderate crowds around the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas.
The openings made official what has been happening for weeks: the erosion of private sector support for a financially devastating strike called to force Chavez to leave office or submit to early elections.
Elected twice since 1998 on a populist pledge to lift up the Venezuelans living in poverty -- a majority of the 23 million people -- Chavez weathered the strike by establishing a makeshift system that has kept the country supplied with food and fuel. He also appealed to his supporters, most of whom are poor, to defend him in the streets. Six people have died in political disturbances since the strike began.
Despite ending the private sector support for the strike, the opposition still holds the strongest card: a shutdown of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, which provides almost half of the government's $20 billion budget and 15 percent of U.S. oil imports. But support for the strike there is weakening. Government officials said the company, shuttered at Christmas, is now producing 1.8 million barrels of oil a day.
That is just over half its pre-strike production. The government predicted the company could reach its full capacity of 3 million barrels a day in March. Gas lines, once lasting hours, have shrunk significantly in Venezuelan cities.
Chavez has fired 5,300 oil company employees, some of whom orchestrated a walkout in April that sparked a general strike, street unrest and Chavez's removal in a military-led coup. He returned three days later with the collapse of the interim government, briefly recognized by the United States, and reinstated the dissident managers in a gesture of reconciliation he appears to be in no mood to repeat.
Despite the reopenings, opposition leaders have declared the strike an unequivocal success that they said will continue with restricted hours for many businesses, street demonstrations and the oil company walkout. But under the positive review echoed in news conferences, there was a sense of anger among many business owners, directed toward both the recalcitrant president and opposition leaders, whom some blame for devastating economic losses.
Jose Baron, manager of the cell phone retail outlet Soft Cellular, returned to his storefront in the Lido Center mall today for the first time since Dec. 1. He lost more than $30,000 in business, he said, shaking his head, and yet Chavez still occupies the presidential palace.
"We supported the opposition movement as a valid way to force a solution to this problem," Baron said. "But after two months of losing 100 percent of our sales, it is time for us to reconsider that support."
"They have the 'F' of failure on their foreheads," Chavez said of the opposition during his radio show on Sunday. "Today we crown the victory, and continue with an offensive strategy."
The opposition, a politically diverse collection of labor unions, business associations, leftist parties and angry private citizens of all stripes, accused Chavez of seeking to impose Cuban-style socialism here. As support for the strike has faded, the opposition sponsored an advertising campaign on opposition television stations promoting what it says are the strike's achievements.
But it is now counting on a solution to emerge from talks being mediated by Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States. He was joined last week by delegates from six "friendly countries," including the United States. The nearly three-month-old talks received another lift when, in a visit last month, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter proposed two ideas that had been discussed informally for weeks.
The first would entail a constitutional amendment to cut Chavez's six-year term, now set to expire in 2006, to four years. The change could lead to general elections early next year. In rallies Sunday across the country, opposition organizers said they had collected 4 million signatures, considerably more than what is needed to put the amendment to a popular vote.
The second idea would allow a binding referendum on Chavez's administration as early as Aug. 19. Chavez has promised to accept the results, with general elections following, should he lose.
The strike "was not a mistake," said Isolina Albano, a 29-year-old student, as she shopped in eastern Caracas. "We don't use guns, so this was the best way to send our message against this regime."