TIME.com: How long can Chavez hold on?
Tim Padgett: I don't see the opposition succeeding in forcing him out any time soon, for three main reasons. First, Chavez still has enough support among Venezuelans to guarantee a really bad backlash. He may no longer have the backing of more than half the population as he once did, but he has enough support to create a serious danger of bloodshed if he is thrown out of office. The second reason is that the opposition itself is really producing more heat than light right now. Its strategy is ill-defined; it's poorly organized and it has put forward no leader of its own as a focal point for the challenge to Chavez. Thirdly, the opposition may not realize the tacit, if grudging, alliance between Chavez and the Bush Administration for the moment. With the U.S. poised to invade Iraq, it needs to keep the oil market as stable as possible. [Venezuela is the source of more than 10 percent of U.S. fuel supplies.] And that means Washington can't afford to alienate Chavez. In fact, for the past few months the Bush Administration and Chavez have been quite chummy in negotiating deals to keep the oil flowing to the U.S. If they're seen to back the opposition and Chavez manages to survive, that could mean trouble for Washington.
TIME.com: But last weekend the Bush Administration endorsed the opposition's call for early elections in Venezuela. Doesn't that signify a change?
TP: Well, the administration quickly backed away from that position, or at least used it as a trial balloon, saying something to the effect that early elections were one option that Chavez should consider for resolving the crisis. The U.S. is playing Chavez with kid gloves right now and without the clout of U.S. support behind them the opposition is relatively weak despite the havoc they're managing to wreak on the economy. Of course, if the impact of the strike on the economy and the oil situation is bad enough, Chavez may have to agree to new elections. For the moment, however, he's mulling whether to declare a state of emergency, which would effectively mean martial law. But I think that would only worsen his own situation.
TIME.com: And if there were new elections, would Chavez definitely lose?
TP: That's an open question. The opposition is fractured, and if they were suddenly faced with having to compete in new elections in March, I doubt they'd be able to agree on a single candidate. And if there was more than one opposition candidate, then Chavez would likely win.
The opposition is led by the components of the old "cogollo" (meaning chieftain) system. For most of the last half century, Venezuela was run by a two-party oligarchy. It represented an alliance between the wealthiest families, the business community and the relatively tame labor movement. And it's those same elements that are now running the opposition to Chavez, whose election in 1998 ended their control. But the reason their current challenge to him has been so successful is that they've managed to absorb middle class disgust with Chavez over his ruining of the economy and tampering with the constitution. The middle class had voted for Chavez in 1998 precisely because they wanted to throw out the "cogollo" system. But although he still has some middle class support, he has alienated most of it.
Chavez is an acolyte of Cuba's Fidel Castro, but the Venezuelan leader hasn't yet reached Castro's levels of tyranny and autocracy 80 percent of Venezuela's media is blatantly anti-Chavez, yet it still operates freely. And you certainly don't get general strikes in Cuba demanding Castro's resignation. Chavez is more reckless than despotic, and it's his handling of the economy and the political system that has turned so many people against him. Those grievances were there in April, when Chavez was briefly overthrown in an attempted coup. In fact, he would not have made it back into power if those same middle class Venezuelans hadn't seen the TV images during the coup of the same old "cogollo" elite running around the presidential palace with cocktails, like it was their own country club. That reminded the middle class of why they voted these people out, and that's what helped Chavez back into power. But they also fear that Chavez hopes to established Castro-style socialism in Venezuela.
TIME.com: Has the U.S. had a clear policy on Venezuela?
TP: Washington got burned in April when U.S. officials appeared to give the impression that they were supporting the coup. There was a strong international and regional backlash against the Bush Administration then, because it evoked a history of the U.S. removing inconveniently elected left-wing presidents. But many policy-makers in Washington know that the recent number of leftists elected in Latin America is a symptom of the failure of the free market reforms of the past decade to close the gap between rich and poor. That gap is wider in Latin America than on any other continent
TIME.com: So how is the showdown going to play out?
TP: If the strike continues into the new year, Chavez may be forced to compromise with the opposition. If not, the opposition may have to wait until next August when Chavez can be compelled to hold a yes-or-no referendum on his presidency. In fact, given its absence of a single popular leader of its own, it may be a better bet for the opposition to wait for a referendum. The strike could end if people stop believing that Chavez is about to go. They expected to have ousted him by Christmas. If he's still in power in the first week of January and the U.S. isn't rushing to join them, the opposition may have to reevaluate their approach. Until now, the mood has been pretty celebratory, because opposition supporters believe Chavez is about to go. But they don't necessarily appreciate the extent to which things have changed, especially in Washington.