CARACAS, Venezuela — A nationwide strike to call for the resignation of President Hugo Chavez paralyzed large parts of Venezuela on Monday, a further sign of this country's deep internal divisions.
Opposition leaders claimed that millions of workers stayed home and that more than 80% of businesses shut their doors in the third nationwide strike in 12 months.
Throughout the day, television stations broadcast images from provinces throughout Venezuela of deserted streets, shuttered businesses and empty buses.
Unlike in the past, there were no reports of violence between the opposition and Chavez supporters.
However, traffic seemed heavier on the streets than in past strikes, and several provinces in the country's rural interior reported near-normal business activity, a sign of growing popular frustration that the opposition hasn't been able to provide a credible alternative to Chavez.
As opposition leaders declared an end to the 12-hour strike Monday night, they promised to deliver by next month the 2 million signatures necessary to force a referendum on the president's rule before the end of the year. The announcement was followed by a 30-minute cacerolazo -- thousands of Venezuelans beating pots and pans to produce a cacophony that filled the city at nightfall.
"Today, Venezuela showed itself and the world that it is capable and disposed to resolving the crisis it is suffering through civil, democratic and peaceful means," said Carlos Ortega, the head of Venezuela's largest union. "Democratically, we have said, 'Enough.' Enough of not resolving this crisis."
Government officials took to the air waves repeatedly Monday to insist that the country was functioning normally.
After some TV channels showed images of closed bakeries and gas stations, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said that every "bakery
One area in which the government could claim victory was the all-important petroleum sector. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil producer, and state oil officials said production continued normally Monday. Critics said Chavez had bought off the workers by granting the largest oil union a 35% pay raise earlier this year.
Since a similar strike in April led to a coup that briefly toppled Chavez, the president and the scattered opposition have not managed to sit down and talk. Late Monday, police claimed to have broken up an assassination plot against Chavez -- the second in two days.
The opposition -- consisting of unions, business groups, the Roman Catholic Church and the media -- wants Chavez to resign immediately and call new elections. It cites the shrinking economy, rising joblessness and internal strife remaining from the coup, which resulted in dozens of deaths.
Chavez gets 25% to 30% support, most of it from the poor, in public opinion polls. He has rejected the opposition's call. Instead, Chavez says he would abide by the results of the referendum if opponents collect enough signatures to put it on the ballot. However, he says, according to the constitution, a referendum could not be held before next August. Chavez's term is set to expire in 2007.
A tour of Caracas on Monday revealed in miniature the country's problems. While the mostly wealthy eastern end of the city was a virtual ghost town, the poorer western sector was alive with business.
Nelson Ramirez, a urologist, said Venezuelans were tired of Chavez's refusal to negotiate with opposition leaders. He said that since the coup, he and other wealthy Venezuelans have been going to gun clubs to make sure Chavez followers don't attempt an armed takeover of richer neighborhoods.
"Now I can hit a target across the street," Ramirez said as he pointed across a mostly deserted plaza to a five-star hotel and a row of closed office buildings. "Before, I couldn't have hit you sitting right next to me."
A few miles away, in a dingy plaza in one of Caracas' poorest neighborhoods, Ysidro Fernandez was stacking cantaloupes into a street cart to be sold for the equivalent of 50 cents apiece.
National guard and police soldiers stood in small bunches everywhere, tear-gas canisters mounted on their shoulders and M-16 rifles strapped across their backs. Motorcycles, buses and taxis zoomed by. Fast-food restaurants, street vendors and lottery shops were all open, doing brisk business.
"I've never voted for anyone, but I'm for Chavez," Fernandez said. "Without him, who knows what the rich would do to us?"