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Venezuela government, opposition tussle over strike

By Pascal Fletcher

CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 26 — Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez drummed up support on Tuesday for a general strike against the leftist leader next week, but the government condemned the planned stoppage as illegal and said it would flop.

The rhetoric kept political tensions simmering in the world's No. 5 oil exporter, where at least two people were killed and dozens injured by gunfire this month in several protests and clashes involving supporters and foes of Chavez.
Tear gas grenades were thrown on the crowded platforms of two central Caracas subway stations Tuesday, causing panic and a temporary halt to train services. Dozens of passengers were evacuated but there were no serious injuries and no one immediately claimed responsibility. Police were investigating.
Labor and business organizers of the opposition strike called for Monday, the fourth launched against Chavez in a year, said it was aimed at pressing the populist leader to quit or to hold an early referendum on his four-year presidency.
But Chavez, who survived a combined general strike and brief military coup against him in April, has refused to resign and his government is campaigning hard to try to head off the upcoming Dec. 2 work stoppage or at least minimize its impact.
''This strike which has been called is unconstitutional,'' Ronald Blanco, the pro-Chavez governor of western Tachira state who is also a government negotiator in ongoing peace talks with the opposition, told reporters Tuesday.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the government was determined not to allow the threatened stoppage to affect vital oil exports, the bulk of which go to the United States.
Former paratrooper Chavez, who was elected in 1998 but faces fierce opposition to his self-styled leftist ''revolution'' in aid of the country's poor, blasted on Sunday the planned strike as an ''insurrectional'' attempt to overthrow him. He said it would be ''crushed by the people and the armed forces.''
Peace talks between Chavez's government and the opposition, brokered by Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, are deadlocked over the leader's refusal to agree to an early referendum on his presidency. Chavez says the constitution only allows for a binding referendum next August and urges his adversaries to wait until then.

The strike call, which organizers say will probably develop into an indefinite work stoppage, and the government's hostile response have raised fears of fresh violence following the April coup, when more than 60 people died in street clashes.
In a statement Tuesday, Venezuela's Roman Catholic bishops urged both sides to show tolerance. ''A peaceful, negotiated political solution is urgently needed,'' they said.
Opposition leaders, who have criticized the president's recent deployment of hundreds of troops in Caracas, said there was solid support for the strike action.
''This is a strike which has been called for by the majority of the people,'' anti-Chavez union boss Alfredo Ramos of the La Causa R opposition party told reporters.
The bishops criticized the government's military takeover this month of the Caracas city police, which had previously been run by anti-Chavez mayor Alfredo Pena. They said this had left city residents at the mercy of criminals.
Opposition labor and business chiefs organizing Monday's walkout say they have so far obtained widespread backing for the protest in key oil, transport and industry sectors.
But this is disputed by Chavez and his ministers.
There was resistance to the strike call from some store owners, who were reluctant to close during the lucrative Christmas shopping period. Others said they were willing to make the sacrifice to try to dislodge Chavez, whose left-wing policies they blame for a slump in the economy this year.
Of key importance to the economic impact of the strike will be the strategic petroleum industry, where a dispute in the state oil firm PDVSA earlier this year badly disrupted crude sales that account for around 80 percent of export revenues.
Strike organizers say most oil workers back the walkout but Ramirez ruled out any effect on oil production and shipments.
(Additional reporting by Magdalena Morales)

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