This Christmas, it's politics vs. presents in Venezuela

Caracans rethink what's important as a three-week-old strike makes holiday gifts hard to come by.

ENRIQUE AULAR'S daughter did what she does every Christmas: She wrote a letter to Santa explaining that she had been a good girl and included her wish list.

Instead of rushing out to buy all the gifts on the list, Mr. Aular and his wife had to tell to their daughter that things would be different this year.

It's not the money. They can afford more gifts. But most of Venezuela is observing a strike aimed at ousting President Hugo Chávez. For the protesters - particularly those with young children - Christmas this year puts their political goals in direct conflict with their family traditions. Do you shop at the few places that are still open, or shun them altogether and risk dashing your children's hopes in order to keep up the political pressure?

The Aulars are sticking to their political principles. Well, mostly. "We are getting her a few things, but nothing for ourselves or for our family," says the young dad at Oritoys in the Las Mercedes area of Caracas. "It doesn't bother us. This strike has helped us understand the real meaning of Christmas."

Around the country, most parents have been doing their fair share of explaining: Santa's not on strike, he just had production problems at the North Pole - or something along those lines.

The reality is that most shops have been closed down for three weeks. Some stores are trying to help desperate parents. Oritoys has been observing the strike during the week, but opening on weekends. Employee David Afonso estimates that Oritoys has lost half of its usual sales at this time of year.

Finding evidence of holiday cheer is hard. Instead of twinkling lights, homes in Caracas are decorated with the yellow, blue, and red Venezuelan flags. A few decorations hang limply from light poles, and Christmas trees have no gifts to guard.

"No one is in the mood to celebrate," says Maria Isabel Reveron. "Once Chávez is gone, then we will feel like celebrating." Her family usually gets together on Christmas for dinner and gifts. But not this year, she says, citing the gas shortage and fear of violence. "I don't mind a sad Christmas, if it means a happy - and free - New Year. Still, we want the children to have a nice Christmas," she says, settling on a sparkling pink and purple bicycle, complete with training wheels, for her granddaughter.

Nearby, at a deserted Christmas-tree lot, shelves are bulging with multicolored glass balls and silver garlands while dozens of Charlie Brown-looking trees slump without purpose. The owner, Virgilio Lusinehe, says he was expecting six more shipments of Canadian trees, but the blockade kept them from reaching port. He says he's glad they didn't make it - no one is buying. "I'm now charging less than what I paid for the trees, just to get rid of them," he says. "Maybe somebody can use them as firewood."

Venezuelans are even having trouble making traditional Christmas hallaca, a tamale-type dish, because most grocery stores are out of corn flour, a staple in the Latin American diet. Milk and other necessities are also becoming scarce.

Some Caracans say the struggle over Christmas has made them realize that the strike needs to end soon.

"We have to get this dictator out, but I don't agree that this strike should go on so long," says América Perez, buying cologne for her teenage son at a bustling street market. She says her family will celebrate Christmas as usual, with family and friends - and gifts.

Amin Contreras and his wife, both Chávez supporters, say they are not going to let the strike spoil their Christmas. In fact, they've had their apartment decorated since mid-November and are buying gifts "to cheer people up."

Loading a tree onto the roof of their tiny Corsica, newlyweds Juan Carlo Osilia and Claudia Taborda say they decided to decorate their apartment at the last minute. She is pro-Chávez and will exchange gifts with her family and close friends (she stocked up while in the United States on their honeymoon). He says he will support the opposition and refuses to buy gifts, even if he could find an open store.

They laugh, saying if they can live together, so can Chávez and his opposition.

Aular says that he and his family will stay home this year, instead of visiting friends and relatives. "The whole neighborhood is going to get together to eat and sing," he says. "It's the first time we will share this holiday with our neighbors. We are all learning to live with less, learning what our real needs are."

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