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Venezuelan president says strike will not drive him out

Sunday, January 12, 2003

President Hugo Chavez vowed Saturday he will not be driven from office by an opposition strike and threatened to fire or jail teachers joining the work stoppage.

Meanwhile, Chavez supporters blocked the route of a planned opposition march through the streets of Maracay, the military's nerve center 42 miles from Caracas, to demand Chavez resign and call fresh elections.

After opposition protesters changed the route and continued marching, police used tear gas to prevent the rival groups from clashing. Police also formed a blockade in Venezuela's Caribbean island of Margarita to separate pro- and anti-Chavez marchers.

The strike, which began Dec. 2, has paralyzed the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, causing fuel shortages and costing Venezuela $70 million a day in desperately needed government income.

"Defeat is prohibited," Chavez told a rally of thousands of supporters at a Caracas stadium. "We are going to triumph."

Chavez, who warned businesses hoarding food on Friday that he might send troops to seize basic foodstuffs, promised he also would not allow schools to stay closed.

"The schools will be managed and directed by the people," he said.

Accusing strike organizers of closing public and private schools, leaving millions of students without classes, Chavez warned that teachers and school directors joining the strike will be fired or even jailed.

Leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition movement promised to expand the strike to drive Chavez from office if he sends troops against private businessmen.

"If they touch a media outlet, a private company, or a political leader we will expand the strike by incorporating other sectors," opposition leader Timoteo Zambrano said. "We are ready to retaliate."

But "Chavistas," as the president's backers are called, rallied in Caracas' La Vega neighborhood, one of the capital city's poorest areas, to support his efforts to end the food and fuel shortages.

Planned anti-Chavez rallies in Toronto and London failed to materialize Saturday, but about 200 Chavez foes demonstrated outside the White House, calling on him to resign.

Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela's leading business chamber, said many schools closed because of low attendance. He insisted most parents were not sending their kids to school in support of the strike.

Venezuela's opposition launched the strike last month to pressure Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, to resign and call elections if he loses a nonbinding referendum on his rule.

The opposition accuses Chavez of attempting to install a Cuban-style communist regime and overriding public institutions such as Supreme Court. They claim he is turning this oil-rich South American nation of 24 million into an economic wasteland.

The country's $100 billion economy shrank an estimated 8 percent in 2002, largely due to constant political instability. Inflation has surpassed 30 percent while unemployment reaches 17 percent.

Chavez has tried to jump-start oil production, which has been drastically reduced by the strike. He has fired 1,000 employees from the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., where at least 30,000 of 40,000 workers are off the job.

Crude output is estimated at about 400,000 barrels a day, compared with the pre-strike level of 3 million barrels. Exports, normally 2.5 million barrels a day, are at 500,000 barrels. Venezuela still is exporting more than it is producing because stockpiles remain.

In Washington, the White House has talked with members of the Organization of American States on ways to end the strike. OAS secretary general Cesar Gaviria is mediating negotiations between Venezuela's political rivals.

Carlos Ortega, president of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, the nation's largest trade union, and opposition leader Zambrano prepared to travel to the United States on Saturday to inform the international community of the situation in Venezuela.

The two opposition leaders plan to meet with U.S. State Department representatives and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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