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Strike and stalemate
LADB, Latinamerica Press
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Venezuelans face long gas station lines, food shortages and limited banking hours as the result of a general strike that began Dec. 2. At press time, the strike was in its third week as opponents and supporters of President Hugo Chávez took to the streets.

The strike was called by the opposition Democratic Coordinating Group, which includes the Federation of Chambers and Associations of Commerce and Production (FEDECAMARAS) and the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (CTV). The opposition groups had initially demanded a referendum to determine whether President Hugo Chávez should remain in office (LP, Nov. 4, 2002). In November, the opposition delivered 2 million signatures on petitions demanding a nonbinding referendum on Chavez´s rule, hoping to increase pressure on him to resign. Election authorities set the date for Feb. 2.

As the strike progressed, however, opponents began to call for the president’s immediate resignation and new elections during the first quarter of next year. The harder line came after gunmen opened fire on protesters in Altamira Plaza on Dec. 6, killing three people and wounding 29.

Oil production — which represents 80 percent of Venezuela’s export revenue (LP, April 22, 2002) — dropped from 2.5 million barrels a day to 1 million, with losses estimated at between US$35 million and $50 million a day. In an effort to keep oil flowing and ensure that exports would continue, on Dec. 11 the Navy took over an oil tanker whose captain had joined the strikers and Chávez ordered the Army to occupy facilities of the state-run company Petroleum of Venezuela (PDVSA). On Dec. 12, he fired four PDVSA executives who supported the strike. On Dec. 16, Army chief Gen. Julio García Montoya condemned the strike and pledged to defend PDVSA against "sabotage."

Negotiations between the government and the opposition, headed by Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General César Gaviria, have also broken down, and Gaviria has admitted that "the parties are not close to a solution." On Dec. 16, the OAS Permanent Council reiterated its support for the mediation efforts.

Chávez accused strike leaders of pursuing a strategy similar to the one used in April — street confrontations, a general strike, and an oil industry shutdown, all backed by Venezuela’s news media. Hundreds of Chávez supporters surrounded TV and radio stations in several Venezuelan cities on Dec. 9, accusing them of backing the strike.

Chávez has said he will not consider resigning. Vice President José Vicente Rangel has suggested a restructuring of the National Electoral Council — to include members aligned with the government and the opposition, as well as representatives of civil society — and a mid-term referendum, which is provided for by the Constitution. "The only date we accept is the one mandated by the Constitution, Aug. 19, 2003," he said.



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