Venezuelan strikers return to work in all areas except oil

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Workers in all sectors but the vital oil industry returned to their jobs Monday -- abandoning a two-month general strike that devastated Venezuela's economy but failed to oust President Hugo Chavez.

As life began returning to normal in stores, factories and banks, the government made gains toward restoring oil production to pre-strike levels in a nation that is a major supplier of crude to the United States and the world's fifth-largest petroleum exporter.

The fear of bankruptcy and shortages of gasoline and other essentials prompted leaders to end the strike, which began Dec. 2, said Albis Munoz, vice president of the country's biggest business chamber, Fedecamaras.

Chavez, elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, vows to defeat his opponents in the streets and at the ballot box. He said Sunday he will prosecute strike leaders for sabotaging the economy.

Venezuela's opposition still hopes to generate international pressure for new elections.

The United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain and Portugal joined the Organization of American States in mediating 3-month-old talks. Over Chavez's objections, they endorsed an early election.

After meetings here Friday, diplomats from the six nations said early elections were the best way to restore stability.

Seeking to capitalize on the strike's momentum, the opposition organized a massive signature drive Sunday for early elections -- the strike's original goal. Organizers claimed 4 million people signed the petitions, a claim that could not be verified.

Various agendas

Strike leaders are a mix of conservatives, leftists, business associations, labor unions and civic groups. Their often conflicting petitions reflected their various agendas.

One called for a constitutional amendment declaring Chavez's term over. Another would cut his term from six years to four, allowing elections this year. A third would create a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution and call general elections.

Yet another option: A binding referendum halfway into Chavez's term, or in August, as permitted by the constitution. That idea was supported recently by former President Carter.

Chavez says he prefers the August option -- a referendum he could win because the opposition, while condemning political and economic unrest, has yet to present an alternative to his populist "revolution" for the poor.

While Manuel Cova, secretary general of the Venezuela Workers Confederation, claimed some sort of vote could be held as early as March, Venezuela has no one to organize a vote.

The Supreme Court ruled last month that the Chavez-dominated Congress must appoint a new board of directors for the National Elections Council. Without a council, no one can verify the signatures collected Sunday.

The strike reflected "the disorganization of the opposition," said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"It was anti-Chavez but never pro-anything. What were they going to replace Chavez with?"

Lines disappeared at banks, traffic jams reappeared, and janitors swept the halls at Caracas' multistory Sambil shopping mall Monday in anticipation of a Tuesday opening.

The strike "lasted too long and now we are paying the consequences," said Luis Lange, 24, manager of an electronics store.

Like Lange, hundreds of thousands of businessmen had counted on holiday sales to make up for last year's poor sales.

According to the Fedeindustria business chamber, the fallout from the strike and continuing recession will cost 200,000 jobs and close more than 20,000 small- and medium-sized businesses by August.

Chavez also fired more than 5,000 striking oil workers.

Lack of oil and tax income forced Chavez to cut 10 percent from Venezuela's $25 billion budget for 2003. Economists forecast the economy will shrink 25 percent this year after an 8 percent contraction in 2002.

Venezuela's crude oil output rose to 1.2 million barrels per day Monday, compared with 1.1 million barrels over the weekend, according to dissident staff at the state owned monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A.

That is about a third of normal production, but Venezuela is expected to add 200,000 more barrels per day in the coming weeks, the staff's daily report said.

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