Venezuelan protesters aiming to raise money for referendum

Sunday, January 5, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Supporters of President Hugo Chavez returned to the streets for another round of demonstrations Saturday, a day after two people were killed in clashes with police and he threatened to implement martial law.

Chavez's opponents, meanwhile, proposed raising money for a referendum on his rule.

Chavez supporters staged the march demanding an end to an opposition strike that has paralyzed the country's oil industry.

"This is a march to defend what belongs to all Venezuelans," said Guillermo Garcia Ponce, one of Chavez's closest political allies.

Labor and business leaders began the strike on Dec. 2 to demand Chavez's resignation and fresh elections. Dissident executives at PDVSA joined the work stoppage.

The strike has paralyzed oil production in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, a top supplier to the United States. It has helped push international oil prices above $30 per barrel while oil workers have defied a back-to-work order by the Supreme Court.

There were no immediate reports of violence during the protests Saturday.

On Friday, gunfire erupted during an opposition march on the headquarters of the armed forces. Two people were killed and at least 78 others were injured -- five of them from gunfire. Both sides claimed the dead as their own.

May impose martial law

Chavez said he would consider imposing martial law to quell the five-week strike and halt escalating political violence.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, said the only way they could hold the nonbinding referendum on Chavez's rule was if they paid for it themselves.

Leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition movement called on Venezuelans to donate between $1.80 and $3.50 to hold the referendum on Feb. 2 as planned.

The opposition had presented over 150,000 signatures to election authorities Nov. 6 to call for the vote, but the national election commission says the parliament still hasn't authorized the $22 million needed to hold the vote.

Government adversaries believe Chavez, whose popularity has fallen from 60 percent in 2000 to roughly 30 percent, will be so embarrassed by the outcome of the vote that he will step down.

Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, argues the referendum is unconstitutional.

Leaders of his ruling party have challenged the legality of the referendum at the Supreme Tribunal, the country's highest court.

The Organization of American States is mediating negotiation talks between allies and adversaries of Chavez. Late Friday, OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria told a press conference the two sides disagree on the validity of the referendum.

"It's a point in which it hasn't been possible to bridge the differences," said Gaviria. "But his doesn't mean we can't arrive at a solution in the coming days or weeks."

Since the strike began, Chavez has been forced to import food and fuel. PDVSA president Ali Rodriguez told the state news agency Venpres on Friday the government has purchased 250,000 barrels of gasoline from a U.S. firm and 600,000 more barrels from Russia.

Venezuela also has received gasoline shipments from Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago.

The government is trying to negotiate long-term import deals with those countries -- as well as Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico -- to meet domestic demand of 400,000 barrels a day.

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