Venezuelan oil output climbs as strike wanes

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- A two-month strike against President Hugo Chavez showed signs of waning Monday as oil production rose and opposition leaders said schools, restaurants and malls may reopen.

Crude oil output reached 966,000 barrels a day Monday according to striking executives at the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA. That amount is just under a third of Venezuela's prestrike production but well up from a low of 200,000 during the strike. Chavez claimed Sunday that daily production had surpassed 1 million barrels.

But the opposition said the strike in the oil industry, which provides half of government revenue, would continue despite government efforts to lift production.

Citing political unrest and economic turmoil, a coalition of business groups, labor unions and political parties launched the strike Dec. 2 to demand that Chavez resign or call early elections.

Postponing vote

They began organizing a nonbinding referendum on Chavez's presidency. But Venezuela's Supreme Court last week postponed indefinitely the Feb. 2 vote, citing a technicality.

Instead, they now plan to collect signatures Feb. 2 on a petition demanding Chavez's term be cut to pave the way for new elections.

A petition -- with 15 percent of Venezuela's 12 million voters -- is necessary to amend the constitution, cutting Chavez's six-year term, due to run until 2007, to four.

Strike leaders, however, were concerned that frustration with long gas lines and shortages of basic goods could weaken their cause.

Julio Brazon, president of the Consecomercio business chamber that represents 450,000 businesses, said shopping malls and food and other franchises may be allowed to open part-time next week.

The National Association of Private Education, which represents 911 private schools, called assemblies this week to decide whether schools should open Feb. 3. School was supposed to start Jan. 7.

The strike has cost Venezuela -- the world's fifth-largest oil producer -- at least $4 billion, according to government estimates.

Chavez's government, meanwhile, was able to raise oil production to 966,000 barrels per day Monday, according to striking executives at the state oil monopoly.

The government claims most of the monopoly's 40,000 workers are back on the job. Strike leaders deny it and say the government has lifted production by focusing on newer oil fields, where crude is easier to extract.

The economy could contract by as much as 40 percent in the first quarter of 2003, the Santander Central Hispano investment bank has warned.

As the strike entered its ninth week, Chavez's government was preparing to impose currency exchange controls this week to limit the amount of foreign currencies Venezuelans can buy and stem a run on the bolivar, which has lost a quarter of its value this year.

With the apparent support of the armed forces, Chavez, a former paratroop commander who staged an unsuccessful coup bid in 1992, has fired almost 3,000 strikers from the oil monopoly, PDVSA.

He has sent soldiers to seize tankers piloted by striking crews and to confiscate soft drinks from two private bottling plants.

A waning strike could give Chavez more muscle in negotiations with the opposition sponsored by the Organization of American States. The main point of discussion is whether to hold early presidential elections.

Chavez was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000. A binding referendum on Chavez's presidency can be held only midway through his term, which would be in August.

The Caracas stock exchange resumed trading Monday for the first time since the strike began. It will open 2-1/2 hours each day to continue showing support for the strike, bourse officials said.

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