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Chavez vows to regain control of oil monopoly

Monday, December 23, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Striking managers at the state oil monopoly will be fired and prosecuted, President Hugo Chavez said Sunday as he vowed to break the work stoppage aimed at forcing him from office.

Chavez also said his oil-rich country may import gasoline from neighboring countries to ease shortages.

The participation of dissident managers of the Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA, in the general strike has cut exports from the world's fifth-largest oil exporter to a trickle and dried up domestic gasoline supplies. Sunday was the strike's 21st day.

"We have begun to recover PDVSA and we will start a cleansing in PDVSA," Chavez said during his weekly television and radio show. "Those who didn't show up for work ... well, they will be fired."

PDVSA President Ali Rodriguez was drawing up a list of workers to dismiss, Chavez said.

Chavez already has sacked four dissident oil executives and seized a gasoline-laden ship whose crew joined the strike by dropping anchor in western Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo. Soldiers then moved the tanker Pilin Leon to shore after Friday's seizure.

A judge freed the crew from jail Sunday but prohibited them from leaving the country. Civilian supporters chanted, "Not one step back!," as Capt. Daniel Alfaro and crew left a courtroom in the western city of Maracaibo.

"We are united, as we have been from the start," Alfaro said, holding a Venezuelan flag.

Twelve other tankers remained idle in various ports.

Chavez, appearing relaxed, announced that the government has exported more than 2 million barrels of oil to the United States, the largest customer for Venezuela, in the last nine days. Another tanker carrying 500,000 barrels will leave port in the next hours, he said.

However, oil exports have been cut by about 90 percent since the strike began Dec. 2, helping drive up world prices.

Chavez said in an interview Sunday that the government has activated emergency measures to import gasoline from Brazil and Colombia. He also told Brazil's O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper that Russia offered to send oil tankers.

Chavez foes insist the president must step down before his term ends in 2007, accusing him of failing to revive the economy, widening class divisions and ruling autocratically. Under Chavez, Venezuela's economy shrank 6 percent in the first nine months of this year, unemployment has climbed to 17 percent and inflation to 30 percent.

Chavez is not constitutionally obligated to submit to a recall referendum until halfway into his six-year term, or August.

Chavez, a former army paratrooper commander who led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, promising to help the nation's poor. His popularity has slipped to about 30 percent but remains much higher in the shanty towns hugging the hills around Caracas.

The National Elections Council has accepted a petition signed by more than 2 million people calling for a nonbinding vote Feb. 2. Voters swarmed to registration centers across the country even though Chavez vowed to ignore the referendum's outcome.

In Washington, two U.S. senators appearing on "Fox News Sunday" urged the Bush administration to take a more active role in the crisis.

Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration should do more to boost stalled efforts by the Organization of American States to "get a compromise, which probably means accelerating an election date in Venezuela."

Outgoing committee chairman Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said, "We have to ratchet this up, and we need someone of significant stature in that position."

In Atlanta, about 300 Venezuelan immigrants who oppose Chavez marched around Centennial Olympic Park, banging pans and holding signs pleading for new elections.

The oil strike has been a crucial force behind the Venezuela protest, which also has closed down sea ports, schools and shopping centers. Hundreds of thousands of Chavez opponents have marched in Caracas.

But many small-business owners and taxi drivers are ignoring the strike. Downtown Caracas bustled Sunday with holiday shoppers and street vendors.


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