Striking oil tanker seized by Chavez's troops

Monday, December 16, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela-- Soldiers carrying rifles boarded a striking oil tanker and brought in a new crew Sunday in President Hugo Chavez's latest effort to quash a two-week-old national strike aimed at ousting him.

Chavez opponents on yachts, motorboats and even kayaks surrounded the Pilin Leon to protest the action.

The tanker, carrying 9.6 million gallons of gasoline, has been idle for almost two weeks on western Lake Maracaibo -- and has become an emblem of the strike that has paralyzed the oil industry and put pressure on Chavez to either resign or call early elections.

Sunday's deployment demonstrated that Chavez was determined to break the strike, which has limited supplies of gasoline, food and cash and polarized this poor South American country.

"Pressure from a group of managers, a group of coup-plotters, won't push me out," he said in his weekly television program Sunday. "I'm here at the will of the great majority of Venezuelans."

He also issued a veiled warning to the United States -- which is pressuring for early elections -- with a reference to Washington's embarrassing response to an April coup that briefly toppled Chavez. The United States initially blamed Chavez for his own downfall and belatedly condemned the coup.

Chavez held up a small blue copy of Venezuela's constitution, which doesn't allow early elections until midway through a president's term -- in his case, August 2003.

"I recommend that governments of the world ... read this constitution. We've published it in several languages -- English, German, French, even Russian," he said. "We can send it to whoever wants it by e-mail ... so that those who came out looking bad in the past don't come out looking bad again."

The president's supporters took to the streets Sunday in a caravan of hundreds of cars. Drivers honked horns and passengers leaned out their windows waving knockoffs of the former army paratrooper's signature red beret.

"Long live Chavez! Nobody topples Chavez!" cried Alisis Fernandez, 37, pumping her fist as she drove her car down a Caracas avenue.

Chavez has fought the strike by firing four dissident executives at the state oil monopoly and commandeering gasoline distribution trucks. Sunday was the second time the government tried to seize the Pilin Leon.

Last week, troops arrested the captain and replaced him, but a judge ordered the captain released Friday saying he hadn't committed any crime, and the crew refused to work under a new government-imposed skipper.

The armed soldiers, wearing camouflage, boarded the boat Sunday morning along with a new crew that Alcala said was foreign. Alcala said the original crew had been ordered to leave the ship.

It was unclear whether the government had qualified personnel to replace the crew on the Pilin Leon or other striking ships -- or to replace the thousands of other strikers at the oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela SA, which include most managers.

Opposition leaders vowed to keep up the strike until Chavez either resigns or accepts early elections -- and called on citizens to intensify the protests.

Starting Monday, Venezuelans should stay indoors from 6 a.m. until 1 p.m., announced Agustin Berrios, spokesman for the Democratic Coordinator, an umbrella group for opposition parties.

Chavez accuses foes of inciting a coup. Negotiations sponsored by the Organization of American States have produced no results.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel blamed the news media and Venezuela's upper classes for the country's instability -- but he acknowledged that Chavez's aggressive style may have contributed to tensions.

"Yes, that's possible. Presidents are human beings," Rangel told Brazil's O Globo newspaper. "I wouldn't have reacted like him. But this is the way he responds."

Chavez's efforts to crack down on the strike have fueled opposition ire. On Saturday, at least 1 million Venezuelans turned out for an anti-Chavez rally in the capital city of Caracas -- the opposition's biggest show of strength since the strike began Dec. 2.

But the president didn't even mention the protest as he began his weekly television address.

"Some say this is a plan to get Chavez to go," he said. "Well, Chavez isn't going."

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