CARACAS, Venezuela — When the crew of an oil tanker named for a former beauty queen decided to strike, the ship's namesake came out of retirement to become a political star.
When a respected academic refers to President Hugo Chavez, the historical figures invoked are Stalin and Hitler, each responsible for far more deaths than the population of this entire city. Some opponents use the more formal "Mr. Dictator Chavez."
When taking the temperature of public discourse, the best instrument turns out to be a sound meter to catch the volume of noise from clanging pots and pans and the shrill cant from radio and television.
Venezuelan politics are loud, over the top, impolite and even flaky, more akin to "The Jerry Springer Show" than a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Latin America experts say part of it is cultural: The region has always been a place where politics are a smash-mouth game of insult and counter-insult, where the loudest voice wins. Worse, the sheer venom puts obstacles in the way of any potential reconciliation.
"It's a reflection of the depth of the rage in Venezuela at this point," said Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a centrist think tank in Washington. "There's tremendous widespread anger.
"The bitterness that's produced makes it virtually impossible to have any common ground," he continued. "It's reached a point where it's difficult to have a rational discourse. And that's a problem."
With oil production paralyzed, Christmas ruined and no signs that Chavez will be stepping down any time soon, Venezuela has descended into hysteria and dysfunction.
There is intrigue: New coup rumors fly every day across Blackberry pagers in office tower boardrooms or mouth to mouth in the poor neighborhoods that dot the mountains surrounding the capital.
There are dysfunctional families: Chavez's wife, in the process of divorcing him, recently took to the airwaves with their two young children to ask the beleaguered president to "listen to the people."
There is the aging beauty queen: Pilin Leon, the 1981 Miss World for whom an oil tanker was named, became a fixture at protest sites and a participant in Venezuela's political debate within days of the ship's crew joining the strike. The crew has since been replaced and its cargo delivered.
Venezuelan women "have been brave, courageous and ceaseless," Leon, now a mother of three, told a cheering crowd in the Plaza Altamira in an upscale neighborhood of the capital where three protesters were recently shot to death.
There is the constant threat of violence: Both sides brag about the number of weapons they have amassed in anticipation of the great conflagration to come.
The entire country -- from homemakers to professors to the president -- seems engaged in verbal chair-throwing where all sense of proportion disappears.
Consider these gems:
Chavez's "tactics are totalitarian, similar to Stalin," said Trino Marquez, a sociologist at a respected university, referring to the Soviet leader believed to be responsible for the deaths of more than 10 million people. "Hitler did the same thing in the Third Reich."
A caller to a television station said: "Chavez is doing to us the same thing that Hitler did to the Jews, the same thing that happened to the Americans with the Twin Towers."
There is not even a pretense of etiquette. Carlos Ortega, union boss and one of the strike leaders, appears on television every night and refers to the president as "Mr. Dictator Chavez," refusing to use the honorific "Mr. President."
Then there is Chavez himself. Since a brief coup in April, the president has toned down his rhetoric a little, which is a bit like saying that Gene Simmons of the rock group Kiss now wears less makeup, or that Ozzy Osbourne now has a more normal home life. In a recent four-hour speech, Chavez referred to his opponents as "terrorists" six times.
"The same political parties and the same opposition leaders, except for some, have not bothered to distance themselves from coup-mongering," Chavez said. "They have launched themselves again, rabidly, some of them insane to recapture power in Venezuela by a route which is coup-plotting, destabilizing, fascist and terrorist."
Chavez also has refused to use Ortega's title -- president of the Confederated Workers of Venezuela -- leaving off the honorific in letters addressed to the strike committee.
"I have softened my rhetoric a lot," Chavez insisted when asked in a recent interview with four American journalists about the continuing deterioration of dialogue in the country. Later, though, he seemed puzzled by the anger directed at him: "People hate me and they don't even know why," he said.
Chavez is a natural target, even though his actions don't come close to the level of people like Mussolini, Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic or even his friend, Fidel Castro, to all of whom he is frequently compared by opponents.