CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez and opposition representatives signed a controversial peace deal Thursday that paves the way for early presidential elections but was criticized as falling far short of solving the nation's political crisis.
Government and opposition members said the agreement represents the best hope to reconcile this deeply divided country, even as some in the fractured opposition expressed serious reservations about the deal.
"The government is not going to say we've won with this agreement, and I hope the opposition won't either," said Chavez, who did not attend the signing ceremony at a hotel here Thursday morning. "Let's say the country won."
The agreement is the culmination of six months of arduous negotiations by the Organization of American States, backed by the Atlanta-based Carter Center, the United Nations and the six-nation Group of Friends of Venezuela, which includes the United States.
The negotiations were intended to ease profound internal divisions in Venezuela, which in the last 14 months has suffered through an attempted coup, a devastating two-month general strike and a plunging economy.
Foes of Chavez, a former paratrooper first elected to the presidency in 1998, accuse him of being a communist sympathizer leading the country to ruin with a half-baked social revolution. Chavez and his supporters see the opposition as right-wing coup-mongers who have done nothing to alleviate poverty.
The primary point of the agreement is that both sides will follow the system set up in the Venezuelan Constitution for a presidential recall.
For the opposition, that means that Chavez and his supporters, who hold a narrow lead in the nation's unicameral assembly, cannot suddenly change the law to make it more difficult to hold such an election.
For Chavez, it means that his opposition has pledged not to mount a coup attempt, as happened in April 2002, when Chavez was deposed before returning to power 48 hours later with the support of military loyalists.
But the agreement sets no timetable for an election. It also leaves unanswered a host of difficult questions about how to conduct such a vote.
The body designated in the constitution to oversee elections, the National Electoral Council, does not exist yet and is the subject of an intense dispute in the assembly regarding the appointment of its members.
Also, Chavez made no promises to forgo court challenges to a recall election, though the opposition believes that such delaying tactics would cost him in international political circles.
However, Chavez has already challenged the validity of the 2.8 million signatures the opposition has collected for the recall, which it hopes to hold as soon as August.
Still, OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, who oversaw the talks, said an election might be possible as soon as November.
"The agreement is not going to solve all of Venezuela's problems," Gaviria said.
"It is a symbolic document which allows the interpretation that there will be a recall election if the constitutional conditions are fulfilled."
Analysts said the agreement represented a victory for Chavez, who has always insisted that recall elections are the only way to resolve the country's problems. Opponents have spent most of the last year demanding that Chavez either resign immediately or hold early elections.
"The opposition had tried other strategies, and nothing had worked," said Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a centrist Washington think tank.
"After exhausting everything else, they decided on using the mechanism that they probably should have used from the beginning" -- the recall election.
Many in the opposition remained unhappy Thursday with the OAS-brokered agreement, arguing that it did not go far enough in guaranteeing a recall.
Fedecamaras, the country's most powerful business group and the source of some of the fiercest opposition to Chavez, gave a last-minute nod of approval Thursday but said it maintained reservations.
Henrique Salas, a former state governor who once challenged Chavez for the presidency, said he signed the deal only because he wanted to show unity among the opposition.
"It's been sold as a solution, which is absurd," he said. "It's very vague. It's basically a declaration of purposes and principles, but it doesn't clarify the when, the where, the how."
But those in the opposition who negotiated the agreement downplayed these differences. They said the agreement offers hope to Venezuelans who have suffered under the political sparring of the last year.
More than 50 people have died in politically related violence since the April 2002 coup, and dozens more have been injured.
The strike, which paralyzed the vital oil industry and closed thousands of businesses, cost the nation upward of $6 billion. Official unemployment is now near 20%, inflation is running at more than 30%, and after the economy shrank 9% last year, another dip at least as big is predicted for 2003.
Special correspondent Ixer reported from Caracas and staff writer Miller from Bogota, Colombia.