Venezuela opposition launches general strike to oust Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Opponents of President Hugo Chavez launched a general strike Monday and threatened street protests in a bid to oust him, but many businesses remained open and Venezuela's key oil sector appeared to be working.

The opponents, who say Chavez's leftist policies have fueled unemployment and hurt democracy, declared their strike a success, estimating that 80 percent of workers stayed home Monday.

Organizers hoped the strike, which was expected to last several days, would pressure Chavez to agree to early elections -- or force his ouster. Chavez said he will not call an early referendum on his term, which ends in 2007.

While many shops were shuttered, Caracas' streets bustled with pedestrians, cars crawled through traffic jams, and cafeterias, shoe stores and video shops were open for business.

"The strike failed," Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias said, adding that industries producing 85 percent of Venezuela's $100 billion gross domestic product were working.

There were conflicting reports at the state-owned oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., a top oil supplier to the U.S. and the world's No. 5 exporter. Oil accounts for a third of Venezuela's GDP.

PDVSA officials insisted operations were normal. Employees reported to work as usual at the Bajo Grande refinery, and National Guard units were stationed at oil installations to prevent trouble.