Caracans split between boredom and business as usual

No movies, discos, or baseball in the capital during Venezuela's fifth week on strike.

Venezuela's capital has become a tale of two cities.

The month-long strike aimed at ousting President Hugo Chávez has all but shut down Caracas's wealthier east side, home to most of the president's opponents. On the west side, however, where Mr. Chávez's support is strong among the city's poor, there's an equal determination to conduct business as usual.

Milagros Corales's home on the east side, for instance, has never been cleaner. She's been baking up a storm and ironing every last T-shirt. She's no wonder woman, just a bored housewife. Ms. Corales says she mostly cleans, watches television, or talks on the phone with family and friends.

Her son Andres has been home from school for a month, and while he's a good little guy, she doesn't know how much more of him she can stand.

"The teachers are on strike so there are no classes. And nobody knows when school is going to start again," she says as her son punches the air with his purple action figure's tiny fists, oblivious to his country's current political problems.

Heading west to buy food

At the Gramma supermarket, one of the few places on the east side that is open, Luisa Mercedes González Castro is looking at the empty shelf that used to contain corn flour - a staple in the Venezuelan diet and one of the first grocery items to become scarce.

She is against the strike because she doesn't believe it's working. "You can't link a political problem with an economic problem," says this retired economist, who also says that Chávez has a lot of good ideas but took over a very difficult situation.

Food is becoming scarce on the east side. So if Ms. González needs something, she just hops on the subway and finds it out west, where few are striking. She won't use her car for anything so mundane. The state-owned oil company is also on strike and gasoline is hard to come by all over the city. Some people wait in line overnight to fill up. She says she is saving her gas for something fun with friends - but even there the options are limited.

Movie theaters, discos, and sports centers are all closed, giving people few means for taking their minds off politics.

Carlos Flores, the owner of the east side's Macaracuay Fitness Center, says he decided to stay open because people need a way to relieve stress. He feels he is contributing to the country by staying open, and has been getting notes and messages thanking him for doing so.

"This is a way for people to relax and work their bodies instead of their minds," says the muscle man.

'Baseball was all we had left'

Lots of Caracans say they are plowing through books, becoming card sharks, and watching way too much TV. Even baseball in this ball-and-bat-crazed country has been suspended indefinitely.

"Baseball was all we had left," says José Manuel Benitez, a despondent fan staring up at the locked stadium in the center of the city.

This season was supposed to spotlight Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez, the right- handed pitcher whose performance with the Anaheim Angels in the 2002 World Series made him a national hero in his native Venezuela. He, along with US players who came down for the winter season, left the country upon the advice of the US Embassy.

For some, the strike has been a lesson in politics. Jack Barrios, who says he never really cared about Venezuelan politics before, and never watched the news or read the papers, was one of the hundreds of thousands who waited up to 10 hours in line to register to vote or update their voting information before last week's deadline.

"I haven't really gone on the marches or banged pots at night. I feel voting is where I can make a difference," he says, admitting that he still does not watch a lot of TV. "It gets me really stressed out."

Mr. Barrios, an interior designer, has been out of work since the strike began - and it's starting to hurt.

"I used to never think twice about going into a store and buying a pair of pants or shoes, never thought about inviting a friend for dinner. Now, forget it," he says. "I'm being very conservative with money because I don't know when work is going to start again."

Not everyone, however, is on strike - even on the east side of town.

Just two blocks from the heart of the opposition's activities in Plaza Alta Mira, Super Hollywood Cleaners is one of the few busi- nesses that remain open. Owner Francesco Merola says he shut his doors the first day of the strike, but has been open ever since "because I have a lot of bills."

He says the strike is especially hard on small businesses that still have to pay rent, electricity, and taxes. "I think it's a political problem, and the economy shouldn't suffer for a political problem," he says.

But even though he is open, says Mr. Merola, leaning across the counter, business is bad. Everyone is out marching in T-shirts and jeans and not dressing up for work, thus not needing dry-cleaning services.

Can't afford to not work

Across town, just steps from the presidential palace at Mira Flores, things look relatively normal. People buzz about, heading to work and doing business on the streets. This is one of Chávez's biggest enclaves of support, and not many people are on strike. In fact, many who live here couldn't afford to go one day without work.

"The opposition is hitting Chávez hard, but things here are still normal," says Larry Bonilla, an ice cream salesman, walking home with his daughter.

Mr. Bonilla's daughter will be starting classes, as usual, in January, because her teachers aren't on strike. He will continue to work, as usual, because his boss is not on strike. He takes the bus and subway, as usual, because he doesn't have a car.

He believes that if Chávez were to call early elections, which even two-thirds of Chávez's supporters say they want, he would win, because "he's different from the others. He's a crazy person. Any other president would have resigned by now."

Guido Manfredi owns a tailor shop in the heart of the city's old center. He says he's been open since the strike began, but because many of his customers come from the east side for alterations, his business has been struggling.

Still, he says as he looks around at the daily activity surrounding him, nothing much has changed here.

"You wouldn't think anything was going on in the country if you came here," he says.

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