- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

CARACAS, Venezuela Three years after his electrifying election victory buoyed the expectations of Venezuela's downtrodden, President Hugo Chavez's long honeymoon with his masses has ended.
The army paratrooper-turned-politician faces a national strike called by Venezuela's largely antagonistic business and labor sectors, opposition street protests and growing complaints that his left-leaning government has yet to generate wealth in this struggling South American nation.
Mr. Chavez's approval ratings, a sky-high 80 percent when he was elected Dec. 6, 1998, and then took office in February 1999, have dropped to just above 50 percent in recent months, according to Venezuelan polls. The same polls suggest two-thirds of Venezuelans blame his vituperative rhetoric for their problems. They cite his constant clashes with industry leaders, the news media, labor unions and the Roman Catholic Church.
Venezuelans have to contend with weekly rumors of coup, nearly $20 billion in unpaid state wages and pensions inherited by Mr. Chavez, billions of dollars in capital flight, a stubborn 15 percent unemployment rate and rampant crime. Last week, former President Luis Herrera Campins lost his car to gunmen.
Now all eyes are looking to a 12-hour nationwide strike Monday called by business leaders and the million-member Venezuelan Labor Confederation. The strike will protest 49 economic laws decreed by Mr. Chavez that critics say will chase away much-needed private investment.
Coming at the height of the holiday shopping season, the strike also could draw government employees and workers from the key petroleum industry, costing tens of millions of dollars in lost production. Doctors, transport workers and many shopkeepers plan to stay home; newspapers will not publish Monday.
State-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA will resort to a contingency plan to continue oil exports. Venezuela is a top supplier of oil to the United States. Most transport companies, including Caracas' subway and regional bus and air lines, plan to operate as much on schedule as possible.
Business and labor leaders are demanding that Mr. Chavez's new laws including one regulating land expropriations and another focusing on foreign oil investment be abolished, or at least amended, in the Chavez-controlled National Assembly.
In a first possible sign of compromise, Interior Minister Luis Miquilena said Tuesday that the president was considering appointing committees to "review" the laws.
"As long as the president doesn't break from his aggressive style of government which scares away investors and ruins the economy, the country is going to collapse, especially if oil prices don't improve," said Pedro Carmona, president of the business chamber that called the strike.

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