Strike leaders face prison terms

Saturday, February 22, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez demanded 20-year prison terms Friday for two prominent opponents who directed a nationwide strike that devastated Venezuela's oil-based economy. Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela's largest business chamber, and Carlos Ortega, leader of its biggest labor confederation, are charged with treason and other crimes for the two-month strike.

Fernandez was arrested by secret police Wednesday and hauled into court Friday. Ortega went into hiding when a judge issued an arrest warrant.

Thousands protested Fernandez's arrest in the western oil city of Maracaibo. Hundreds more rallied in Caracas and blocked a highway.

"These oligarchs believed that they were untouchable. There are no untouchables in Venezuela. A criminal is a criminal," Chavez thundered during a ceremony handing land titles to peasants in Trujillo state.

He demanded a 20-year term for Fernandez, president of Fedecamaras, and for Ortega, of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, for allegedly sabotaging the oil industry, inciting civil disobedience "and trampling the human rights of the Venezuelan people."

The treason charge carries a 20- to 26-year prison term.

Oil is Venezuela's strategic industry, and its exports were the fifth-largest in the world before the strike began Dec. 2. The strike ended Feb. 4, but Chavez's government is battling a continuing walkout in the oil industry.

Citing nationwide hardship caused by gasoline shortages, Chavez condemned Fernandez and Ortega as "terrorists" who failed to topple his government -- both during a brief April coup and this winter.

Fernandez's case was transferred Friday from a judge who had acted as defense attorney for Chavez supporters accused of shooting at opposition marchers before the April coup. A second judge was to decide Saturday if Fernandez should remain in custody pending trial.

The tempestuous Chavez also had a message for foreign critics of Fernandez's arrest. The United States, Organization of American States and other entities voiced concern that Venezuela's crisis is escalating.

"I want to remind all the governments of the world that Venezuela is a sovereign country! We are nobody's colony!" Chavez shouted.

Fernandez's arrest fueled speculation Chavez has begun a crackdown on his opponents.

Chavez won't allow strikers access to U.S. dollars under a new foreign exchange system, and he has threatened to shut down broadcast media for inciting rebellion. He also has warned he will seize private businesses and property to deliver gasoline, food and other basics.

The labor confederation, meanwhile, said it wasn't planning another strike to protest Fernandez's arrest.

The OAS, the United Nations and the Carter Center, run by former President Jimmy Carter, have sponsored three months of talks to seek an electoral solution to Venezuela's crisis. The future of those talks was in doubt after Fernandez's arrest.

Venezuela's opposition wants early elections and collected more than 4 million signatures to back its demand. The government dismisses the petition drive; Venezuela's elections authority is in shambles.

Chavez is a former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000 to a six-year term. He vows to distribute Venezuela's oil riches to the poor. Critics accuse him of imposing an authoritarian state and driving the economy into the ground.

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