Filed at 2:43 a.m. ET
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Latin Americans have spent the past few years getting rid of entrenched systems that have failed them. But some are beginning to realize their new leaders aren't making life any better than the old did.
With much of the region gripped by uncertainty over struggling economies, the social unrest that is now paralyzing Venezuela could foreshadow wider threats to newfound democracies across the region.
After President Bush promised to make this ``the century of the Americas,'' the U.S. government's focus has shifted to the war on terrorism.
But the major concern in Latin America harks back to Bill Clinton's mantra: ``It's the economy, stupid.'' Without a strong recovery in the United States, whose economy dominates the Americas, there is little Latin American leaders of any political stripe will be able to do.
For two decades, the region has been replacing authoritarian regimes with democratic governments in a U.S.-oriented, free-market mold. The problem has been that new policies haven't done much to improve people's lives.
So voters have begun to opt for something else -- anything else.
Economic woes led to the 2000 election in Mexico of Vicente Fox, a conservative businessman who toppled 70 years of single-party rule with promises of huge economic growth and first-world status for the country.
Discontent in Brazil led to the election this year of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist former union boss who promised to make fighting hunger his top priority. His victory was seen as a rejection of the free-market policies of the defeated government, which had curbed runaway inflation but left the economy stagnant and millions in poverty or jobless.
Ecuadorans just elected as president Lucio Gutierrez, a former army colonel who led a short-lived coup in 2000 aimed at ending endemic corruption and halting the spread of poverty.
Argentina has seen a revolving door of presidents since the country defaulted last year on much of its $141 billion foreign debt. A presidential election in April will determine whether the country continues on the free-market path or moves to the left.
Venezuelans, meanwhile, are learning unconventional leaders may not fulfill hopes either.
The radical populist Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998 and again in 2000, promising to remake society after a 40-year alternation of power between two corrupt, centrist political parties. But he has been unable to make the once envied oil-based economy grow and has seen unemployment and poverty rise.
A powerful but confused opposition movement briefly ousted Chavez last April only to see him return two days later. The country is now a month into a general strike and sometimes violent street protests aimed at ousting him.
The protesters demonstrate in the name of democracy, despite the fact that Chavez's term lasts until 2007 and the constitution doesn't allow a referendum on his reign until August.
``We all thought he'd bring prosperity, but he's making us poorer,'' said Eliezer Chavez, a 20-year-old computer consultant who voted for Chavez but has joined the demonstrations demanding his removal.
He said the opposition movement is ``totally democratic,'' because democracy for him means people can oust an elected leader they feel isn't doing a good job -- whether the constitution allows it or not.
Part of the threat to the region's young democracies is that democracy in Latin America is largely superficial. There are elections, but leaders often do not serve all the people. The idea of a civic spirit is not deeply ingrained.
``These societies have adopted some of the more superficial aspects of democracy and market economies,'' said Steve Johnson, a Latin American policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. ``You have electoral democracy, but you're basically still electing an autocrat.''
There is no indication that the region will reverse its economic slide -- or that its institutions can stand up to the challenge.
``I think things will get worse in Latin America, and the problems will deteriorate further,'' said Sidney Weintraub, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank.
``I think you'll get breakdowns in democracy, and as the economies
fail people will experiment in ways that will only hurt them more.''
ARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 29 — Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets here today to declare their commitment to a national strike, now in its 28th day, to force the ouster of President Hugo Chávez.
The strike, joined by an estimated 30,000 oil workers, threatens to wreak havoc on this nation, the world's fifth-largest oil producer, for months to come. It has stopped the oil exports that generate about 80 percent of Venezuela's foreign revenue and 50 percent of government funds.
In recent days, the strike has reached a kind of stalemate. Mr. Chávez is using nonstriking workers to try to normalize operations at the state-owned oil company. His opponents, led by a coalition of business and labor leaders, contend, though, that their strike will push the company, and thus the Chávez government, to collapse.
In an interview today, Horacio Medina, president of a group of striking oil managers, said that the first 10 days of the new year would be decisive. He said the opposition leaders would turn up the pressure on the Chávez government by urging their followers to conduct campaigns of civil disobedience, like refusing to pay taxes.
"The only solution" is for Mr. Chávez "to resign," he said. "People are still willing to stay out of work for many more days."
Each day that passes, however, seems to strengthen Mr. Chávez's resolve to ride out this latest and most explosive political storm. He has been able to keep gasoline trickling to the pumps in Venezuela. Almost daily television broadcasts show him speaking at important gas and oil installations, boasting that his government has not been weakened by the strike.
Mr. Chávez, a former paratrooper, speaks like a man at war. He describes his opponents as "traitors" and "coup plotters," who are using oil to overthrow the government without regard for the devastating economic impact of their strike.
He has promised that supplies of gasoline will be restored by mid-January. Once operations at the state-owned oil company recover, he contends, the opposition will run out of cards to play.
"Any card they play is a card that will be burned," he said, "because we have popular force. We have military force. We have moral force. We have reason on our side."
Opposition leaders acknowledge that the oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, has become the principal battlefield and that Mr. Chávez has proved a more resilient foe than even their most pessimistic predictions anticipated.
They say the government's efforts to restore operations at the state-owned oil company have shown that Mr. Chávez was unwilling to negotiate a compromise in the current crisis. They say it leaves them no alternative but to keep up their strike in hopes that the Chávez government will run out of gas — literally and politically — within the next two weeks.
As shortages of gasoline become even more acute, opposition leaders calculated, the pressure on the streets will be too powerful for Mr. Chávez to ignore.
"I do not see how they can stabilize this situation," Mr. Medina said. "Things are only going to get worse, and when they do, Chávez will have to negotiate."
Many say that without a negotiated settlement between Mr. Chávez and his opponents, it may be impossible to stamp out the rage and suspicions generated by the highly charged verbiage from both sides of this political conflict.http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/30/international/americas/30VENE.html