Chavez opponents march on site of military base

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Soldiers in riot gear blocked the entrance to a park outside a military base Sunday as opponents of President Hugo Chavez prepared to march on the site, where rioting left two dead and dozens injured two weeks ago.

The march is aimed at persuading the military to support a 42-day-old strike that has paralyzed the world's No. 5 oil exporter but hasn't rattled Chavez's resolve to stay in power.

The military -- purged of dissidents after a brief April coup -- has supported Chavez, with troops seizing oil tankers, commandeering gasoline trucks and locking striking workers out of oil installations. Top commanders have professed their loyalty to the government.

Dozens of soldiers used barbed wire and armored personnel carriers to block the entrance to Los Proceres park, outside the Fort Tiuna military base. The park is one of eight security zones in Caracas as decreed by Chavez. Protests are banned in those areas unless authorized by the defense ministry.

A few residents protested the show of force, chanting, "The government will fall!"

"This is totally out of proportion. It's no way to control a march," said Carlos Melo, of the opposition Democratic Coordinator movement. "If the government thinks these trucks and weapons are going to stop us, it won't."

Venezuela's largest labor confederation, business chamber and opposition parties called for the strike on Dec. 2 to demand that Chavez resign and call early elections if he loses a nonbinding referendum on his rule.

The National Elections Council scheduled the referendum for Feb. 2 after accepting an opposition petition signed by 2 million people.

Chavez says the vote would be unconstitutional, and his supporters have challenged it in the Supreme Court. He was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, and his term ends in 2007.

Opponents accuse the president of running roughshod over democratic institutions and wrecking the economy with leftist policies. The opposition has staged dozens of street marches, called for a tax boycott and held a two-day bank strike last week.

Chavez has threatened to order troops to seize food production plants that are participating in the strike and to fire or jail striking teachers and have soldiers take over their duties.

He already has fired 1,000 oil workers after some 30,000 of 40,000 workers joined the strike, which has caused fuel shortages and slowed oil exports to a trickle.

The strike is costing the country an estimated $70 million a day.

On Jan. 3, Chavez supporters and opponents clashed while police fired tear gas to keep the sides apart during an opposition march on Los Proceres. Two Chavez supporters died after being shot and at least 78 were injured, five with gunshot wounds. It was unclear who fired on marchers.

Police also intervened Saturday when Chavez supporters blocked the route of a planned opposition march through the streets of Maracay, the military's nerve center, and on Margarita island off Venezuela's coast.

The country's crude output is estimated at about 400,000 barrels a day, compared with the pre-strike level of 3 million barrels. Exports are a fifth of the 2.5 million barrels a day the country usually produces.

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.

Negotiations sponsored by the Organization of American States have produced few results.

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