Over the last fifteen months, Venezuela has suffered from tremendous political turbulence. As I argued in the November/December 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs, the deficient performance of Hugo Chavez's populist government undermined its popularity. The opposition, comprised of political parties, powerful business groups, trade unions, and other sectors of civil society, therefore put increasing pressure on the president through a series of protests. When one of these mass demonstrations provoked a violent response from the president's followers in April 2002, factions within the military tried to force Chavez to resign. But the political blunders of the coup plotters and the unexpected resilience of Chavez's hard-core followers among the poor and elsewhere in the military quickly allowed the president to return to office. This unforeseen resurrection embarrassed the Bush government, which had seemingly condoned the coup.

Chastened by this political near-death experience, Chavez initially promised to pursue reconciliation. But radical sectors among his followers and intransigent groups in the opposition posed insurmountable obstacles to any such effort, and Chavez's penchant for fiery rhetoric soon overwhelmed his good intentions--if they were ever sincere. Also, the deteriorating economy, shaken by a large-scale devaluation in early 2002 and rocked by the political turmoil, exacerbated disaffection among the business community and the rest of the citizenry. In polls, a majority of the population favored the president's resignation. Only a limited, but increasingly organized and armed group of fervent followers continued to support the president.

Political tensions again escalated in the second half of 2002. In December, business and labor organizations declared a general strike designed to bring down the government and lead to new elections. When most workers of the state oil company, PDVSA--which produces three quarters of Venezuela's exports and supplies the state with approximately half of its tax revenues--joined the stoppage and brought petroleum production and shipments almost to a halt, the president's days seemed numbered. But once again, Chavez proved to have unexpected political resilience. He has been "sitting out" the strike, insisting on completing his constitutionally guaranteed mandate and hoping that the costly strike would collapse. The Venezuelan economy has suffered tremendous damage from this irresponsible war of attrition; it will take weeks to increase oil production once the strike ends.

Reeling from the costs of the strike and facing an obstinate adversary, the opposition has searched for an exit from the cul-de-sac and has therefore seized on the mediation efforts of Jimmy Carter. It will probably have to accept Chavez's proposal to hold a "recall referendum" on his presidency in August 2003. This mechanism, introduced by Chavez's tailor-made 1999 constitution, allows the citizenry to remove an office holder in the second half of his or her term. But since a recall requires a larger number of votes than the office-holder garnered in the initial election, the opposition is likely to lose in August because discontent with the government often boosts abstention--which will help Chavez.

Thus, Chavez may well survive these new attempts to oust him. Yet this political continuity comes at the cost of severe economic blood-letting and grave political polarization. Thus, however long Chavez's populist experiment may end up lasting, it will take the country many years to recover from this disastrous experience.

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  • Kurt Weyland is Associate Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the forthcoming The Politics of Market Reform in Fragile Democracies: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela.
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