PAN-CLANGING DEMONSTRAtions and 12-hour gas lines have tapered off since a two-month nationwide labor shutdown ended, but Venezuelans are still on their guard.
President Hugo Chavez has begun cracking down on the strike's organizers-who meant to oust him from power-and opposition leaders are gearing up for more battle. "It's a tense calm," said Jim Carmean, personnel coordinator for TEAM, an international church-planting group. "The rumors are that things are going to get very bad, that there's going to be an attempt to violently overthrow the government."
The strike contributed to rising gas prices in the United States, which imports 13 percent of its oil from Venezuela, amounting to 1.5 million barrels a day last year. The country is the fifth-largest producer of petroleum in the world, and the only Latin American member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Stephen Johnson, a senior policy analyst on Latin America with the Heritage Foundation, said a lack of U.S. intervention in Venezuela's deteriorating political crisis could mean a descent into civil war-and worse oil supply disruptions. "This could be a taste of what could come," he said. "I think there are folks determined in the Bush administration that it stays off the radar screen until the Iraq issue is resolved. The administration should be more active in trying to pressure Chavez into dropping his inflammatory rhetoric and act like a president and not a demagogue."
Mr. Chavez pledged to purge government corruption when he was elected in 1998. In 2001 he enacted 49 reform laws-including one that would allow the government to seize large estates and agricultural land seen as unproductive. Millions protested the changes, and last year a strike culminated in a coup attempt that forced Mr. Chavez to resign. He resumed office two days later when the interim government collapsed.
The United States has backed the diplomatic efforts of the Organization of American States to sponsor three months of talks between the government and opposition. Those are now in doubt after one of the strike leaders, dubbed a "terrorist and a coup plotter" by Mr. Chavez, was put under house arrest on Feb. 23.
A judge also issued arrest warrants on Feb. 26 for seven strike leaders and executives of the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA. Most of the company's 35,000 employees took part in the strike, and more than 15,000 of them were fired when it ended.
PdVSA has now ratcheted up production to 2 million barrels a day-up from as low as 300,000 in the thick of the strike. But some experts wonder whether the loss of some of the company's most experienced workers will hinder Venezuela from ever reaching its pre-strike production level of 3.1 million barrels a day.
The Venezuelan economy shrank 8.9 percent last year, according to the government, and economists predict a further contraction of about 13 percent this year. The inflation rate is also expected to reach about 42 percent this year.
Greg Burch, director of programs for Ni-os de la Luz (Children of the Light), which helps homeless children, says his ministry is seeing many more street kids-but also double the number of volunteers it had in December. "Even donations from local Venezuelans have increased," he said.
And so have the opportunities to reach out to Venezuelans frustrated and weary of the country's drawn-out crisis. Church members and missionaries have been handing out tracts, serving tea, striking up conversations with customers waiting in long lines, and making friends with previously reserved neighbors.
"It's a common theme that opens people up to talk," said Mr. Carmean. "I know of a case where a missionary seeing a gas line go right into the evening decided to set up a screen and show the Jesus film, and several people expressed an interest in knowing the Lord. In spite of all the hardship that this has caused, it has opened doors to the gospel."
Opposition leaders would like to see an early referendum on Mr. Chavez's mandate, but Mr. Johnson doubts it will happen. "Chavez will try to throw roadblocks in the way of seating a new electoral council," he said. "Nobody wants to back down. Chavez sees himself in a rather messianic, apocalyptic role."
As Venezuelans brace themselves for more political turmoil, missionaries are seizing every opportunity to present the real Messiah. "We've been getting together and talking about the tremendous historical moment in Venezuela," said Mr. Burch. "Maybe this is the window that will finally make the [evangelical] church grow."