- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela, Jan. 29 (UPI) — Support for Venezuela's lengthy general strike is crumbling, with many businesses deciding to reopen their doors after more than eight weeks observing the politically inspired stoppage.

Many business owners are clearly beginning to feel they have suffered enough. The strike has cost the oil-rich country billions of dollars in lost economic activity, particularly in lost oil export revenue, and its consequences have led some economists to predict a further 40 percent contraction in the first quarter of 2003.

The country's banking association announced Wednesday that banks will open normally next week, while the country's malls and shopping centers are also planning to gradually normalize their opening hours.

The president of the Chamber of Shopping Centers, Arnoldo Moreno, told reporters the sector still supported the aims of the ongoing general strike, but could not afford to remain closed for much longer.

The malls will, however, maintain limited opening hours. Moreno said shops would probably open three or four times a week for shorter periods. He said the sector had decided not to return to normality until the government of President Hugo Chavez agrees to the demands of the strike's organizers.

The Venezuelan opposition and their allies in business association Fedecamaras and the CTV public-sector union launched the strike on Dec. 2 to force Chavez to call new elections or to submit to a referendum on his government. They accuse the leftist president of having authoritarian tendencies and of presiding over a major economic crisis. Venezuela's gross domestic product dropped around 8 percent in 2002.

Chavez has yet to make any concessions to the strikers and has repeatedly warned his supporters that the strike "hides fascist and terrorist tendencies that are attacking the Republic and all our state institutions."

The decision by Venezuela's banks and malls to return to work will be a major blow to the opposition, which seems to have lost its gamble that shutting the country down would eventually force Chavez from power.

In particular, the opposition has paid dearly for its inability to shut down the crucial transport sector or the state administration, while large numbers of small businesses simply ignored the stoppage and continued trading.

Despite a mass walkout by managers and administrative staff at state-owned energy giant Petroleos de Venezuela, the government has also managed to ensure that gasoline supplies are reaching most consumers.

PDVSA President Ali Rodriguez has made new appointments and increased reliance on contract staff in order to boost paralyzed oil and gas production, and operations are gradually returning to normal, with even the opposition admitting Tuesday that PDVSA is currently producing over one million barrels per day.

The slow ebb of support for the strike is likely to bring bitter consequences for the opposition, which will now have to rally those sectors still observing the stoppage and persuade them that a further sacrifice could still bring results.

While the banks and malls can reopen with no more severe consequences than eight weeks' lost income, the failure of the opposition's gamble is a bitter pill to swallow for those 5,111 employees PDVSA has dismissed for observing the strike.

Even if a deal is made to allow some employees to return, many others have already been replaced and PDVSA's Rodriguez has made it clear that he sees the strike as a good opportunity to slim down the company's middle management.

Employees at PDVSA's petrochemicals subsidiary Pequiven have so far escaped the mass reductions elsewhere in PDVSA, but they too are expecting the ax to fall within the next few days.

"We are all very nervous," one striking employee told United Press International. "We hear a lot of rumors. People are saying that they are going to sack us all or carry out some major reorganization where they will need fewer people."

The employee added that the strikers remain solid in their support for the strike, but that they are increasingly concerned that other sectors are leaving them to bear the brunt of its failure.

Even if the opposition promises to reemploy all the strikers as soon as they form a new government, the earliest this is now likely to happen is August, leaving previously comfortable middle managers to face the prospect of several months without pay.

The most likely solution to Venezuela's political crisis — now that the chances of the strike forcing the president from office are increasingly slim — is President Jimmy Carter's proposal that Chavez either submit to a binding referendum in August or else allow a constitutional amendment to reduce his term of office.

Either solution gives the government plenty of time to consolidate its support and prepare for a poll, while the failure of the strike could cause the opposition's fragile alliance to collapse amidst mutual recriminations.

"This strike has cause the opposition major problems," political analyst Alberto Garrido told UPI. "They never expected it would last this long and it has brought their popularity down. There are people who have lost their jobs and little shopkeepers who won't be able to reopen. They will all demand answers."

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