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Strike Plan Threatens to Worsen Venezuela Conflict

Thu November 21, 2002 02:35 PM ET
By Pascal Fletcher

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Foes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who are pressing for an early referendum on his rule said on Thursday they would call a nationwide strike, but the government dismissed the threat as a desperate bid to force the leftist leader from power.

The strike warning by anti-Chavez labor and business chiefs put the government and opposition on a collision course in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, which has been hit by sometimes violent political instability for months.

Opposition leaders, rejecting what they called government intransigence in ongoing peace talks, said they would announce later Thursday the date and duration of the latest strike.

It will be the fourth such walkout in a year called against Chavez. The former paratrooper was elected in 1998 and survived a brief coup by rebel military officers in April this year, following a general strike that disrupted oil exports.

He has refused repeated opposition calls to step down or hold an immediate referendum on his rule.

"The strike is going ahead. What we're going to establish is the type and the date," Carlos Fernandez, president of the anti-Chavez business association Fedecamaras, told Reuters.

In a rare political alliance of bosses and workers, Fedecamaras was coordinating the strike action with anti-government labor union CTV and with members of the Coordinadora Democratica opposition coalition.

The strike call posed a serious threat to peace talks between the government and opposition, brokered by Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria.

Gaviria met on Thursday with CTV president Carlos Ortega, a sworn political enemy of Chavez, to try to persuade him to at least postpone the strike plan, which members of the government condemned as an irresponsible and dangerous tactic.

"This is a strike with coup intentions, a strike against the country and society," pro-Chavez National Assembly President Willian Lara told reporters.


Opponents of Chavez, who staged a botched 1992 coup bid six years before winning elections, say he is trying to install Cuba-style communism in Venezuela. He argues his policies, including land redistribution, are aimed at helping the poor.

He says his followers will resist what he calls an "insurrectional strike" and may take over strike-hit firms.

Caracas remained tense after the government's deployment of troops last weekend to seize control of the city police from anti-Chavez mayor Alfredo Pena. The crackdown followed clashes this month involving Chavez supporters and opponents and riot police that killed at least two people and injured dozens.

Fernandez said Fedecamaras favored a strike before December, possibly starting on Monday. The protest could begin as a one-day action and then extend into an indefinite walkout.

It was not immediately clear whether the opposition had the power to halt the state-run oil industry, whose sales account for some 80 percent of export revenues. Fedecamaras' Fernandez said strike organizers had canvassed significant support among oil workers, especially in the western oil state of Zulia.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the state oil firm PDVSA would activate contingency plans to keep oil exports flowing. "We won't allow PDVSA to stop," Ramirez said.

There are doubts about how effective another strike would be. Many retailers may be reluctant to close their doors during the lucrative Christmas shopping period.

The strike may also lack support among the poor working class, where backing for Chavez is still strong and many are feeling the pinch of high inflation and unemployment.

The central bank said on Thursday the economy shrank by 5.5 percent in the third quarter 2002, compared with a year ago.

Earlier this year a labor dispute in the state oil firm PDVSA widened into an all-out general strike that disrupted oil exports and led directly to Chavez's brief overthrow in April. The president was later restored by loyal troops.