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Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Venezuelan negotiations resume Oil executives also protest Chavez
Talks between the government, left, and the opposition began Friday.

EL HATILLO, Venezuela (AP) -- Opposition leaders resumed negotiations with Venezuela's government to stem a political crisis while state-run oil monopoly executives staged an anti-government protest.

Opposition leaders said they may call an indefinite strike if President Hugo Chavez refuses to accept an early referendum on his presidency. Chavez says that according to the constitution, a binding referendum can be called only halfway into his six-year term, or next August.

His opponents say the country can't wait that long. They want a nonbinding referendum this year, hoping to embarrass Chavez into resigning.

"If all the roads for the opposition are cut off they can't ask for the impossible. We'd be forced to call a strike," said Timoteo Zambrano, a representative of the Democratic Coordinator, a coalition of groups pushing for Chavez' ouster at the ballot box.

The National Elections Council named a new president Monday and said it could decide whether to organize a nonbinding referendum by Friday. The council's president, Alfredo Avella, said members were verifying 2 million signatures gathered by the opposition to demand the referendum.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, one of six government representatives at the talks, played down the threat of a strike.

Mediator Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, warned against any action that could break off talks.

Meanwhile, executives at the state-run oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. protested what they said was Chavez's alleged "politicization" of the company.

During their lunch break, hundreds of executives stepped out of their offices to bang pots and pans in protest.

Members of Chavez's ruling party met Saturday evening at the company's headquarters in Caracas and used video conference facilities. The monopoly said Monday the use of company facilities for political ends is not permitted.

In mid-April, the company's management staged an indefinite strike after Chavez fired members of the company's executive board. The nation's leading trade union and business chamber joined the work stoppage, which spurred a coup and Chavez's ouster on April 12. He was restored to power two days later.