Swooping in as a conciliator, former President Carter presented two proposals to the government of President Hugo Chavez and his opposition Tuesday in an attempt to end a 7-week-old strike that has crippled this nation.
If both sides agree to discuss the proposals, it would be the first time since negotiations began in November that a concrete proposal has been on the table to end the strike that has hobbled petroleum production in one of the largest suppliers of oil to the United States.
Last year's Nobel Peace Prize winner described the two sides' willingness to talk as positive, but he expressed caution about the possibility of a quick solution.
"My opinion is that both sides now want to reach an agreement to end the impasse that is destroying the economy of this country and the social structure," Carter told a packed news conference. "I don't think anyone imagined that the strike would last 50 days, and no one wants to see it last for 70 days or 100 days."
Carter's representatives presented the initiatives to the two sides late Tuesday. Some in the opposition welcomed the initiatives, while others greeted them with deep skepticism. The government also was reviewing the initiatives to determine whether to formally accept them as part of the negotiations.
The first proposal is a constitutional reform that would seek to shorten Chavez's term, scheduled to end in 2007, and force immediate presidential elections.
The second proposition is a recall election in August to be monitored by international observers that would lead to new presidential elections in 30 days if Chavez was defeated.
Although both proposals have been debated publicly during the 52-day-old strike, Carter's visit was a moral push to put them on the table for discussion, which has so far produced no results.
Together, the two suggestions represent the strongest hope yet for a breakthrough in a protest that has made life miserable for millions of Venezuelans, poor and rich. The developments Tuesday also promised the possibility of a political accord to end the crisis in a major oil supplier just as the U.S. prepares for a possible war on Iraq.
They come at a time when this whole nation seems tired: tired of waiting in long lines for gas, tired of finding no milk or flour on store shelves, tired of daily marches and fighting in the streets that has left six people dead since the strike began.
Though Chavez would not rule out a campaign to defeat a push for an amendment, he said he would respect such a measure's terms if they were passed by the methods specified in the constitution, written by Chavez backers in 1999. In the past, he has said he would not respect such an amendment.
"If the opposition wants to cut back the presidential term from six years to four years or five years or three, it's valid for them to try it," Chavez said. "I have even said that instead of blocking pipelines, sabotaging gasoline or milk for the children, they should put themselves to work on these ideas."
Still, it was clear that much work remains. Among the toughest issues is when the opposition would lift the strike, whose support has been gradually slipping. In the last few weeks, businesses have opened even in the wealthiest areas of Caracas, the capital, where backing had been strongest.
Also unclear is what would happen to striking oil workers, who have been the firmest in insisting that Chavez resign. Analysts believe that the fate of the 35,000 workers who joined the strike will be one of the toughest issues to resolve.
Though Carter's two suggestions are mutually exclusive, they were framed to spark dialogue by ensuring that both proposals contained features attractive to both sides.
The opposition has long resisted the idea of a recall election in August, favored by Chavez as the only means to force him from office. But Carter told the opposition that the international community would ensure the election would take place Aug. 19 through the new Group of Friends -- the U.S. and five other countries -- which has pledged to help resolve the crisis. That's important because opposition leaders fear that Chavez would try to block the vote.
Chavez has opposed any effort to remove him by means other than a recall election. However, depending on the agreement, an amendment could allow him to run again.
Carter, in an interview after his news conference, said he was convinced that both sides were ready to seriously negotiate.
"The alternative is continued chaos," he said.
Carter's proposals seemed well timed. In recent days, momentum has shifted among Chavez's opponents, who accuse the controversial leader of driving the country toward economic and social ruin.
Since last summer, the opposition's main focus has been on holding a nonbinding referendum Feb. 2 on Chavez's rule, a process that has included the collection of 2 million signatures, several violent confrontations and a long court battle that has yet to be settled.
But since Chavez met with a group of opponents last week, the idea of amending the constitution has gained momentum.
The amendment could come about in one of three ways: a proposal by Chavez, or by the Congress, or a petition signed by 15% of registered voters, about 1.8 million people -- any would result in putting an amendment to a nationwide vote.
"This is the way out of the crisis," said Eduardo Fernandez, secretary-general of COPEI, the Christian Democratic Party in Venezuela, which is part of the opposition coalition. "We are reaching a consensus to have advanced elections through a constitutional amendment."
Despite that claim, however, Tuesday was also the first day that serious cracks appeared in the opposition, an uneasy conglomerate united by hatred of Chavez and not much else.
On Tuesday, tanker pilots in oil-rich western Venezuela lifted their strike.
Since the strike began, most employers have continued paying their workers. But on Tuesday, reports emerged that some companies had begun layoffs after seven weeks of no revenue.
Also, some in the opposition openly complained about the sudden rush to a constitutional amendment, saying the focus should remain on the nonbinding referendum.
"Chavez is trying to divide us," said Carlos Ortega, an opposition leader and head of the country's largest union. "That will never happen."
Special correspondent Stephen Ixer contributed to this report.