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CNN
Saturday, November 9, 2002
Venezuela begins talks to avert violent upheaval

EL HATILLO, Venezuela (AP) -- Opponents and supporters of President Hugo Chavez emerged from talks aimed at easing a growing political crisis acknowledging that an agreement on early balloting was still far off.

"We are convinced a process of dialogue requires time," Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Friday after a five-hour meeting with opposition leaders and Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States.

Gaviria is trying to broker an end to a bitter political stalemate threatening to destabilize this South American country, the world's fifth largest oil exporter.

Chavez's opponents want a referendum on his rule, arguing he has mismanaged the economy and his fiery rhetoric has split the country along class lines. Even though the referendum would be non-binding, they believe it could embarrass Chavez into calling early elections.

Chavez claims the proposed plebiscite is illegal since the constitution says a referendum can only be held halfway into his six-year term, or next August.

Both his allies and adversaries said Friday that more time will be needed before a final deal acceptable to both sides can be hammered out, but some progress has been made.

The rivals have agreed to strengthen the electoral system, disarm the population, and the create a "truth committee" charged with investigating 19 deaths that spurred an April 11 coup against Chavez.

However, reaching a deal on the sticking point -- setting a date to hold nonbinding referendum on Chavez' rule -- is still a long way off.

On Monday, the opposition battled through Chavez supporters in downtown Caracas to deliver more than 2 million signatures to the National Elections Council demanding the referendum. Dozens were hurt by gunfire, rocks and tear gas during the melee.

His opponents argue that rising unemployment, a collapse in the currency and rampant crime are proof that Chavez is unfit to continue governing and Venezuelans can't wait until next year for balloting.

But Chavez has shown no intentions of backing down.

If the government continues to rebuke referendum demands "an indefinite strike is imminent" warned Carlos Ortega, head of the nation's largest trade union, earlier this week.

If labor and business leaders call a strike it would be the fourth in less than a year. An April 10 work stoppage provoked a military rebellion in which Chavez was booted from power and then restored after two days.

Political analysts expressed doubt that Chavez and his adversaries would be able to hash out their differences at the negotiation table, making a strike the only alternative left for an increasingly desperate opposition.

"I see the negotiations failing. It's simply a play act by both the opposition and the government," said Anibal Romero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University.

"The opposition will be forced to call a general strike and simply hope for the best," added Romero.

http://www.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/americas/11/09/venezuela.talks.ap/index.html

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