Venezuelan president says general strike won't drive him from power
The general strike in Venezuela is now in its eighth week and it shows little sign of ending.
This week the government froze the local currency. The bolivar has dropped more than 30 per cent in value against the U.S. dollar since the strike started in December.
The economy is being ravaged. Venezuela's all-important oil exports have been reduced to a trickle. Many people aren't getting paychecks because businesses are shut down.
Even with all the economic upheaval there's no sign that either combative President Hugo Chavez or his harsh critics are ready to back down yet.
Almost daily the protesters in the streets accuse Chavez of being a communist, a dictator, a man who has destroyed democracy and the economy. They're mostly middle class; business owners, union workers, state oil employees and members of political parties.
Dressed in the red, yellow and blue of Venezuela's flag, they march somewhere in the capital every day, hoping to force elections and desperately wanting to get rid of Chavez, no matter if it costs them and their country everything.
But Chavez isn't going anywhere. He told a crowd of followers recently that the opposition is nothing but a bunch of terrorists, coup-mongers and fascists who want to own the country.
Almost no one sits on the sidelines in Venezuela. People either love Chavez, or they hate him.
Teodor Petkoff, a former communist guerrilla who turned in his weapons years ago and joined the political establishment, has been a government minister who took tough economic measures to balance the budget.
Petkoff now runs a newspaper, Tal Cual which translates to "Just As It Is."
"In Venezuela we have some genetic thing that makes us really crazy, because it's impossible to understand how such a strike can last more than 40 days," said Petkoff.
Petkoff says he doesn't even know how to begin to explain the situation to the outside world.
"People have decided to go to the end, and the end is 'OK, I'm broken, absolutely broken.' And in no country in the world will you find a president or a prime minister that after one week of a general strike ... doesn't resign," he said.
Petkoff says it's because Venezuelans are all too macho to give in, even though the standoff is destroying the economy. The government estimates it is costing $70 million US per day.
Small business owners have been told how they can get government loans to survive this crisis. Many support the president.
Lopez Angel Enrique, one of those small business owners, says Chavez is the first leader with a heart for the poor people.
But political scientist Vilma Petrash doesn't see it that way. She's part of the opposition now, even though all of her training tells her to remain neutral.
"I am a mother. I am a citizen. I am a Venezuelan, first of all. I feel that our sense of future is quite difficult to see for ourselves and our kids. That's why we decided to be in the struggle, the democratic struggle for the country and for the republic," she said.
Chavez's speeches are full of antagonistic, aggressive language. He dismisses all criticisms against him.
Chavez came into power with a huge majority. Venezuelans were sick of the two main parties, which had squandered the country's oil fortune, through corruption and mismanagement. He promised to get more money into the hands of the poor and end corruption.
His critics say he has done neither.
The poor are poorer and so is the middle class. Venezuela's economy has been shrinking for 20 years, even though it's the sixth largest oil exporter in the world.
Negotiations between the two sides to end the strikes have gone nowhere. And the decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Court to rule out a February referendum on the president's leadership has only increased the tension.
International talks to resolve the crisis begin Jan. 24 in Washington.