WASHINGTON - The fervor for "regime change" in Iraq is spreading to another oil-producing nation: Venezuela.
President Hugo Chavez's increasingly beleaguered government is losing traction daily as the Democratic Coordinator - an umbrella opposition group of business, labor and civil society - smothers Venezuela's petroleum-driven economy in a perpetual general strike that intends to induce regime change, possibly at the cost of protracted civil strife.
The White House recently advocated holding early presidential elections. Washington thus aligned itself with the opposition and offended the Chavez government by meddling in its affairs and effectively sanctioning an extraconstitutional act.
With or without Mr. Chavez, Venezuela faces myriad challenges to return to being governed democratically.
The situation is dire. The nation's vital state-owned petroleum sector - a source of half the government's total revenue and about 15 percent of U.S. imports - is nearly paralyzed, and there have been ominous outbreaks of violence. In response, Mr. Chavez has declared legal protection of the petroleum sector - force majeure - and he may decree a state of emergency if conditions deteriorate further.
The once-fractured Democratic Coordinator is emboldened and seems poised to repeat its ill-conceived April coup effort when it pronounces that Mr. Chavez is an autocrat who does not govern democratically and must go, whatever the cost to Venezuela. The mercurial president will not step down or be embarrassed into resigning; it is his destiny, he believes, to lead Venezuela's poor majority out of misery and defeat those who undermine his efforts.
With or without Mr. Chavez, Venezuela's oil industry, National Assembly, labor unions, judiciary and military are divided over how the country should be governed.
Indeed, while the Chavez-led "Bolivarian revolution" might soon be dead, the president's impact on Venezuela has transcended the visceral association many lower-class supporters feel because of his mestizo skin color and anti-establishment rhetoric. It's important to recognize that the proverbial genie is out the bottle, and Venezuela's poor majority will demand that fundamental social issues be addressed.
During the two-day April coup, which was tacitly supported by the United States, the interim administration of business leader Pedro Carmona looked and acted like a 1950s Latin American civil-military junta, dissolving the National Assembly, throwing out the Supreme Court and unabashedly representing the elite. The opposition still wants the whole system revamped, from the name of the country - "Bolivarian State of Venezuela" - to the assembly and constitution.
If the opposition again sacks the president, Mr. Chavez's supporters - at least a third of the population, which in April took to the streets and brought their leader back to office - will not hesitate to bear arms for the first president to offer them a legitimate stake in national politics.
Only if Mr. Chavez is removed through constitutional or electoral means would Venezuela be able to mitigate the chaos of regime change. No matter how he falls, moderates in both camps would be seriously weakened and the country would still face enormous challenges the day after.
A telltale sign of Venezuela's inability to be governed democratically is that no military or civilian official involved in the April coup has been jailed. Trials against military officials and depositions of civilian officials involved are subsumed by polemics. Establishing an objective truth commission about the violence during the April coup is subordinate to political agendas.
The media in Venezuela are another example of the nation's endemic governability problem. In fact, the only sector of Venezuela not divided is the media, which are united by their virulent anti-Chavez position.
The media forfeited their objective role in April when they broadcast American movies and Venezuelan soap operas as government supporters retook the national palace and the army restored Mr. Chavez. The media's partisan role has undermined efforts to facilitate a rational political dialogue and helped radicals in both camps.
For his part, Mr. Chavez, after promising to moderate his polarizing rhetoric in April, has failed to create an atmosphere of reconciliation and dialogue. The opposition's obstinacy and coup-mongering, nevertheless, are an inexcusable war of attrition on weak democratic institutions.
So should Mr. Chavez go? He is, after all, the democratically elected leader who has not breached the constitution.
Crisis calls for immediate measures.
The Bush administration's public call for early presidential elections bolstered the opposition, agitated the president and indirectly undermined a pro-government but moderate representative's constitutional amendment proposal for early elections. Mr. Chavez is loath to appear in concert with a U.S. policy torn between oil interests and a thinly veiled preference for regime change. The recalcitrant opposition refuses to wait for August, when a binding referendum on Mr. Chavez's rule can be held.
So again Venezuela faces civil war or dialogue. With hesitant and muted diplomacy from the United States and fruitless mediation efforts led by the Organization of American States, the former is more likely.
Michael Marx McCarthy is a research associate in Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.