U.S., five other countries push Chavez for elections

Saturday, February 1, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Diplomats from the United States and five other countries met with President Hugo Chavez and opposition leaders Friday, seeking a deal for early elections and an end to a two-month strike.

With indications the strike was dying down, opponents were hoping international pressure on Chavez to negotiate would help revive their drive for early balloting.

But Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton said the government had no intention of pledging to end Chavez's term early.

"The government has no interest in doing away with itself," Chaderton said Friday.

To demonstrate that discontent with Chavez continues, tens of thousands of opponents protested government investigations into three independent television stations accused of supporting the strike.

Envoys from the United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal and Spain made no comments after meeting with Chavez and strike leaders. Later Friday, they were to attend negotiations sponsored by the Organization of American States.

The diplomatic group is urging both sides to accept one of two proposals made by former Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter.

One is to hold a recall referendum on Chavez's rule halfway through his six-year term, or August. Venezuela's constitution allows opponents to petition for such a vote by gathering signatures from 20 percent, or 2.4 million, of the country's 12 million registered voters.

The other -- favored by Chavez opponents -- calls for ending the strike in exchange for a government pledge to push through quickly a constitutional amendment cutting Chavez's six-year term to four years, clearing the way for early elections.

The government has managed to raise oil production beyond 1 million barrels a day -- a third of normal, signaling that Chavez was regaining control of the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., where the walkout is the strongest. Oil provides 70 percent of export revenue and half of government earnings.

Before the strike, Venezuela was the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a major supplier to the United States.

In another sign the strike was weakening, private banks announced they would restore normal working hours next week after two months of opening just three hours a day. Also,factories, schools, shopping malls and franchise restaurants are discussing opening next week, fearing bankruptcy.

The Bush administration has promoted early elections as a solution to the crisis.

Chavez has irritated Washington by cozying up to Cuba and criticizing civilian deaths in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Afghanistan. Chavez tried unsuccessfully to widen the negotiating group to include governments more friendly to him.

The strike, although it is faltering, has plunged Venezuela's already fragile economy into deeper straits. By government estimates, the country has lost $4 billion. Private economists warn the economy could shrink 25 percent in the first three months of the year after contracting an estimated 8 percent last year.

The Central Bank was forced to suspend dollar sales after the bolivar currency plunged 25 percent this year.

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