As this nation's seemingly implacable strike grinds through its ninth week, the Supreme Court has emerged as a third axis of power in the dispute that pits President Hugo Chavez against a determined opposition.
Until last fall, the court, like the National Assembly, was assumed to be under Chavez's control because a former ally handpicked most of the court's 20 judges for their 12-year terms.
But in the last few months, as Chavez and his critics have clashed over legal matters, the court has become increasingly unpredictable, issuing some rulings for the president and others for the opposition.
"The picture has changed," said Luis Miquilena, an enigmatic and aging powerbroker believed to have the most influence over the court through a web of political contacts. "The people in the court have realized that we can't have a court that is allied with the president. That would be perverse."
Venezuela's power poles have long been clear: Chavez, a former coup leader, in control of every branch of government, versus his opponents, a patchwork coalition that includes powerful business and union leaders, housewives, dissident military officers and rival politicians.
The opposition accuses Chavez of driving the country into social and financial chaos. They have waged the strike since Dec. 2 to force him from power. The protest has crippled petroleum production and made life miserable for millions of Venezuelans. Gas lines are long and milk and flour scarce.
The first sign that the court was no longer under Chavez's control came in August, when justices issued an 11-8 ruling, with one abstention, that absolved four military officers who participated in a coup against the president in April. Chavez was returned to power 48 hours later by loyal military officers and other supporters.
The stunning decision, which found that the four officers had not participated in an active "military rebellion" because at the time Chavez reportedly had resigned, continues to be a source of deep anger for the president and his supporters.
In the months that followed, however, the court made it clear that the ruling against Chavez was not exactly a change of heart. The court issued a temporary injunction ordering all striking oil workers back to their jobs. The employees ignored the order and are awaiting a final ruling.
But the judges also issued an order forcing Chavez to return control of the Caracas Police Department to a political enemy. The regime took over the force after complaining that police were being used to crush demonstrations by the president's supporters.
Last week, the court suspended a referendum on Chavez's rule scheduled for Feb. 2. The opposition had made the measure the focus of all its recent efforts to oust Chavez. They had collected 2 million signatures, delivered them to election authorities under a hail of rocks and bullets, and battled a series of legal challenges to be able to hold the nonbinding vote.
"I don't know what's going on with the court these days," said Anibal Romero, a political analyst aligned with the opposition.
The court's independence -- or perhaps its willful balancing act between the two sides -- will become more important as the strike continues because nearly any solution to the crisis could wind up before the justices.
Several key opposition figures have proposed a constitutional amendment that would cut Chavez's term short and set immediate elections. But the president has vowed to challenge that effort in court -- and if the fight over the nonbinding referendum is any indication, such a maneuver could wrap up the proposed amendment bid for months, if not years.
A second proposal, favored by Chavez, is to hold a recall election in August. The constitution permits such an election halfway through the president's term. Even in that scenario, the court plays a role.
Previously, the court ruled that the halfway point of Chavez's term would be in January 2004, three years after he was last sworn in. But after that ruling, Chavez made a casual announcement on his weekly radio and television show that the halfway point was really August 2003 -- three years after he was elected in July 2000 to a six-year term.
As a result, opponents fear that the date could become the source of another protracted court dispute. The date is now set to become part of the negotiations.
Former President Carter, acting as a conciliator in the crisis, has suggested that the court issue a second ruling backing the August date before any accord is signed.
All that has led both sides to develop a deep distrust of the court and its motives -- further imperiling the separation of powers in a country that has long had weak public institutions.
"Its decisions are questionable because they are based on political motives," said Juan Barretto, a lawmaker with Chavez's party, the Fifth Republic Movement. "The legitimacy of the institution is in doubt."
Two justices contacted by The Times declined to be interviewed.
The court has a less than stellar reputation. Since the beginning of the modern Venezuelan democracy in 1958, its justices have been handpicked by the two political parties that long dominated the country's electoral landscape.
When Chavez took office, he vowed to change that practice. Instead, in the confusing time surrounding Chavez's 1999 moves to install a new constitution, Miquilena named each of the new judges. Most of them were later confirmed by the National Assembly.
Miquilena, who broke with Chavez a year ago, insisted in an interview that he no longer has any hold over the judges. But several lawyers and former judicial officials who follow the court said he has great influence on at least eight of the 20 judges, either through old political alliances or leverage
A Miquilena ally, Justice Franklin Arrieche, who wrote the decision absolving the four generals, is in the running to be president of the court, though sources believe the position will go to a Chavez ally, Omar Mora.
Still, others argue that while Miquilena controls a number of justices, he doesn't control the right ones. The court is made up of six judicial chambers, handling everything from family law to elections to constitutional issues. All 20 judges meet in session only in rare cases, such as trials involving military and political representatives.
In practice, the constitutional chamber, made up of five judges, winds up hearing the most important cases. Chavez still has heavy influence over three of those justices, sources said. Ivan Rincon, current president of the full court, is a Chavez ally, as are Jesus Eduardo Cabrera and Jose Delgado.
"The government has control of the constitutional chamber," said Gustavo Linares, a constitutional lawyer with one of Caracas' most elite legal firms. "That's the most important."
Finally, some observers believe that the court is simply playing a political game. With the future of the country in doubt, justices may be issuing rulings to please both sides as a way of ingratiating themselves with whomever eventually wins.
"They are watching out for their own reputations. It's a perversion of justice," said Asdrubal Aguiar, the country's former interior minister and a current opposition member.
Whatever the truth behind the court's actions, Chavez supporters and opponents agree that, barring a negotiated solution, the court will play a key role in ending the conflict.
But if the court continues to be seen as a political tool that bounces between loyalties, its decisions will be in doubt. Either side might ignore a ruling -- and that would only prolong the country's agony.
"When you have a tree with bad roots, the more it grows the more afraid you are," said Javier Elechiguerra, a former Chavez ally who served as his attorney general.