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Venezuelan Opposition’s Unity Crumbles

Times Staff Writer

Henrique Salas says he is just trying to inject hope into a shattered economy and a divided society.

The second-place finisher in this country’s presidential election five years ago, Salas has saturated the television airwaves in recent days with a reminder that he predicted trouble ahead with the victory of President Hugo Chavez.

“Now it’s time to look ahead. Lift your eye up to the skies,” Salas says in the 30-second spot, staring into the camera and flashing a toothy grin.

The advertisement -- which Salas insists is not a political ad -- is the latest sign that Venezuela’s opposition is crumbling after a failed two-month national strike to oust Chavez from power.

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Salas has become the first major politician to openly distance himself from the Democratic Coordinating Committee, the uneasy coalition that has led the protests against Chavez for the last year.

The possibility of a recall vote and a new presidential election this year has rent the committee. Labor and business, new and traditional political parties, and the leftists and conservatives who made up the opposition’s once-united front are all fighting for power.

The fracture has left the opposition with no clear strategy to confront Chavez, who seems politically stronger than ever after having survived a brief coup last April and then the strike, which cost the country $6 billion.

Once-massive street demonstrations have declined in size and frequency. A petition drive to force Chavez out via an even earlier election has gone nowhere. Strike leaders are on the run, seeking political asylum or facing trial on charges of rebellion and instigation.

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“The opposition is going through a difficult time. They are not going to exercise significant pressure on the government in the next few weeks,” said a source close to talks going on between the two sides. “I don’t believe the Democratic Coordinating Committee will disintegrate, but yes, they have internal problems.”

The failure of the strike and the coalition’s problems, in turn, have stalemated the peace talks. Once-daily meetings between the two sides are taking place only occasionally.

The government has little reason to negotiate now that the strike has failed, say those participating in the talks. Cesar Gaviria, the president of the Organization of American States and the talks’ mediator, has privately told some diplomats that he thinks there will be no negotiated settlement.

“At the table, nothing is happening. The government has decided to do nothing,” the source said. “The most probable thing is there will be no accord but a recall vote by the end of the year.”

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Even the media -- once Chavez’s fiercest opponents -- have toned down their rhetoric in the face of an aggressive counterattack by Chavez.

The president recently implemented currency controls that permit bolivars, the national currency, to be exchanged for dollars only for certain government-approved imports.

Chavez announced that he would not allow “coup-plotters” access to dollars, which led media owners to fear the measure would be used against them. And in fact, in its first list, released this month, the government did not allow currency exchanges for the purchase of newsprint. Already, one newspaper has warned that it will run out of newsprint by April.

Marcel Granier, the director of RCTV, one of the nation’s most-watched television networks, said he has been unable to pay foreign suppliers for things such as new programming or videotape since the government put the currency exchange controls in place last month.

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“In a fascist government, the media are targeted from day one,” Granier said.

There are also at least four measures under consideration that could affect media operations. One would appoint “vigilance councils” of local citizens to oversee and advise on editorial content. Another “content law” would restrict what news programs could show.

Jesse Chacon, the general director of the National Commission on Telecommunications, which oversees media licenses, said the government is simply seeking a way to ensure more balanced coverage.

“Pretending that there should be no regulation because the media can regulate themselves is not acceptable,” Chacon said. “Their power has to be managed. They haven’t been elected, but they have the power to topple a government.”

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The members of the disparate opposition accuse Chavez of launching an ill-fated social revolution that has instead driven the country further into poverty and political ruin.

The president has refused to make any concessions, insisting that the only legal means to force him from power would be a midterm recall election that could take place as early as August.

Instead, he recently announced that this year will be “the year of the offensive” of his Bolivarian revolution, which seeks to improve the lives of the 80% of the country that lives in poverty.

He has promised to implement long-delayed plans that call for a redistribution of land to the poor. And he has begun a program in which the government uses air force planes and navy ships to import food at reduced costs to sell at “popular markets” for the poor.

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In a speech to university students last week , Chavez claimed victory over “the conspirators, terrorists and fascists” who tried to stop his reform plans.

“We are defeating them, and we will always defeat them. On our side is morality, reason and victory,” he said.

In several interviews, opposition leaders downplayed the seriousness of the fissures in their ranks, which they said were to be expected after the strike’s failure and given the possibility of an upcoming election.

Instead, they portrayed a new strategy: The opposition will take a low profile over the coming months as the economy slowly collapses, with inflation and unemployment peaking in August -- the same month as the possible election.

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Crime and joblessness already have risen sharply since the last election, making life miserable for many of the poor, who form the core of Chavez’s constituency.

The hope is that the voting public will forget that the opposition-led strike has been responsible for much of Venezuela’s economic problems and will turn their fury against Chavez.

“I think we should lower our profile and let the crisis create its own dynamic and go with it,” Salas said. “You have to let people rest a bit.”

That comes as little comfort to the millions of Venezuelans who are suffering the effects of a country in dire economic straits.

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Wilbur Caseres, 25, is a taxi driver studying to be a lawyer. In the last three weeks, he’s been robbed twice -- the latter time by a passenger who was nine months’ pregnant.

He foiled the attempted robbery by hitting the brakes and pulling over next to a policeman. The sobbing woman explained that she had three children at home and needed money to pay for their food as well as the upcoming birth of her fourth.

The police officer emptied the bullets from the gun the woman was carrying and gave it back to her, telling her to sell it. Then he gave her $12, and Caseres added another $12.

“That’s just how things are now,” Caseres said.

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