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Venezuelan opposition leader given asylum by Costa Rica

Sunday, March 16, 2003

The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela -- With the granting of diplomatic asylum to a fugitive labor leader, opponents of President Hugo Chavez have lost a key leader and one of the architects of a 64-day strike that devastated the economy and polarized a nation.

Carlos Ortega, the head of Venezuela's largest labor union, went to the Embassy of Costa Rica on Friday and received diplomatic asylum, escaping charges of treason and rebellion for his role in the general strike.

Another strike leader, Carlos Fernandez, the president of a business association, is under house arrest facing rebellion and other charges.

Costa Rica is expected to decide over the next two days whether to grant Ortega territorial asylum, which would allow Ortega to live in Costa Rica.

"I feel like he has abandoned us," said Luis Kesoling, 53, a store owner who favors the ouster of Chavez. "Now he's leaving, where does that leave us?"

Others were more sympathetic.

"It's understandable because his life was in danger, but it's sad because we are being left without leaders," said Gloria Gonzalez, a 35-year-old nurse.

Chavez opponents accuse him of steering Venezuela's economy into recession with leftist policies and accumulating too much power.

The president says his foes resent his efforts to end social inequality and his wresting power from the corrupt leaders that ruled Venezuela for 40 years until his 1998 election.

Supporters of the president expressed outrage that Ortega would escape criminal charges for helping to organize the strike.

"That delinquent should be punished for what he did," said Jose Modesto, 49, who sells used books on a corner in downtown Caracas. "Without justice there won't be peace here."

A statement from the Costa Rican foreign ministry said it granted Ortega asylum "for humanitarian reasons." The labor leader cited fears for his personal safety in his asylum request.

Hundreds of flag-waving supporters gathered around the embassy in eastern Caracas chanting, "Ortega, friend, the people are with you."

Chavez, who has called for prison sentences of 20 years for strike leaders, has said Ortega's asylum request "demonstrated the criminal character" of strike leaders.

"They are saboteurs and terrorists who greatly harmed the country," the president said.

The strike, which ended last month, paralyzed Venezuela's lifeblood oil industry and cost the country an estimated $6 billion but failed to force Chavez to accept early elections.

Ortega, president of the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation, went into hiding on Feb. 20 after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest for treason, rebellion and incitement.

Chavez opponents have denounced the arrest warrants against their leaders as political persecution.

Ortega is the third Chavez opponent to seek asylum abroad.

Last year, Colombia granted asylum to business leader Pedro Carmona, the figurehead in an April coup that ousted Chavez for two days. El Salvador granted asylum to another alleged coup leader, Vice Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo.


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