Michael Gavin, chief Latin American economist at UBS Warburg in Stamford, Conn., said, "They're hollowing out the economy and setting Venezuela up for a real setback if oil prices ever return to more historically normal levels."
Cars, then, are often the purchase of choice and, because of that, they do not depreciate here as they do in the United States and in Latin America's other big car markets. Also, it does not hurt that government subsidies and price controls lock gasoline prices at 12 cents a gallon.
There are signs that Venezuela has taken the case seriously. Its chief lawyer in the case, Esther Bigott de Loaiza, has close ties to top government officials. But she was ousted late last year after she was named in a lawsuit, now dismissed, that said Venezuela had paid her $18 million in the case.
Opinion polls released in the last week have found Mr. Chávez's proposals tied or trailing the opposition position among likely voters, after months of polls showing it likely to pass. In recent weeks, students have rallied in Caracas to protest the changes, and some of those demonstrations have turned violent.