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Washington Post
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o-Chavez Rally Opposes Venezuela Strike

Pascal Fletcher
Thursday, January 23, 2003; 1:58 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela - Several hundred thousand supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rallied in Caracas on Thursday to back the defiant leftist leader who is resisting an opposition strike battering the economy.

To the sound of throbbing drums and trilling whistles, followers of the populist president marched from the east and the west of the capital to converge on a downtown avenue. The government brought many of them by bus from other cities.

Chavez called the rally to protest the opposition strike, which has ground on for more than seven weeks, slashing oil output by the world's No. 5 petroleum exporter.

Chanting "Hey, hey, Chavez is here to stay," the marchers, many waving pro-government banners, noisily rejected opposition calls for the president to resign and hold early elections.

Several carried Cuban flags and portraits of the guerrilla legend Ernesto "Che" Guevara, reflecting the left-wing ideology that permeates the president's self-styled "revolution."

The nation is tensely divided over Chavez's rule. While foes accuse him of dragging Venezuela toward Cuba-style communism, his backers hail him as a champion of the poor.

"We have to support our president," said Chavez supporter Atilio Mata, a 50-year-old grocer wearing a red beret, a symbol of Chavez's movement.

The 53-day-old opposition shutdown has choked off the government's oil income, triggering a fiscal crisis and forcing the government to temporarily suspend foreign currency trading and slash budget spending for 2003. The Central Bank is preparing foreign exchange controls to stem a sharp slide in the bolivar currency and falling international reserves.

Supplies of gasoline and some food items have been disrupted, causing anger and frustration among the population.

The cut in oil exports has helped push up the price on international markets at a time when it is already high because of fears of a possible war in Iraq, another major producer.

Thursday's rally rekindled fears of violence. At least six people have been killed in clashes between rival protesters since the strike began Dec. 2. To avoid confrontation, opposition supporters stayed at home Thursday.


Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and survived a short-lived coup last year, has vowed to beat the strike, condemning his striking foes as "terrorists" attempting to topple him. "Bit by bit, we're defeating the chaos," he said late Wednesday.

The combative former paratrooper has proved many pundits wrong by holding out against the crippling strike for so long.

"I think he's winning this round ... his strategy is to wear down the opposition and wait. It's a war of attrition he thinks he can win," Michael Gavin, Head of Latin American Economic Research for UBS Warburg, told Reuters.

The president, who appears to have the backing of the armed forces, has sent troops to take over strike-hit oil installations and raid food plants the government alleges are hoarding products. One of the plants raided last week was a local bottling affiliate of Coca-Cola Co. .

Thursday's pro-Chavez marchers carried a huge model of a Coca-Cola bottle painted with the words" "Don't drink it!."

Gavin predicted Chavez could hold out against the opposition onslaught in the short term but the pressure for elections was building. "Chavez will have to choose between remaining democratic and staying in office," Gavin said.

Opposition hopes of testing Chavez in a national vote next month were dashed Wednesday when the Supreme Court suspended a nonbinding referendum on his rule planned for Feb 2.

Opposition leaders accused the tribunal of bias. They said the ruling showed how the president had taken over the nation's democratic institutions and was ruling like a dictator.

Government supporters Thursday tore down an opposition billboard supporting the suspended Feb. 2 referendum.

Chavez tells foes they should wait until Aug. 19, halfway through his term, when the constitution allows for a binding referendum on his rule, which is due to end in early 2007.

Oil production has been creeping back up in recent weeks as the government struggles to restart oil fields and refineries. It says that output is now running at more than 1 million barrels a day, around a third of pre-strike levels But strike leaders say production is still around one fifth of normal.

The United States, alarmed by the cutoff of more than 13 percent of its oil imports because of the Venezuela crisis, is part of a six-nation "group of friends" which will meet in Washington Friday to discuss ways of solving the conflict.

In a broadcast late Wednesday, Chavez voiced reservations about the "friends" group -- which also includes Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Portugal. He insisted it should be expanded to include nations like China, Russia and France. (Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero)