Strike Plan Threatens to Worsen Venezuela Conflict
Thu November 21, 2002 02:35 PM ET
By Pascal Fletcher
CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Foes of Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez who are pressing for an early referendum on his rule said on
Thursday they would call a nationwide strike, but the government
dismissed the threat as a desperate bid to force the leftist leader
The strike warning by anti-Chavez labor and business chiefs put the
government and opposition on a collision course in the world's fifth-largest
oil exporter, which has been hit by sometimes violent political
instability for months.
Opposition leaders, rejecting what they called government
intransigence in ongoing peace talks, said they would announce later
Thursday the date and duration of the latest strike.
It will be the fourth such walkout in a year called against Chavez.
The former paratrooper was elected in 1998 and survived a brief coup
by rebel military officers in April this year, following a general
strike that disrupted oil exports.
He has refused repeated opposition calls to step down or hold an
immediate referendum on his rule.
"The strike is going ahead. What we're going to establish is the type
and the date," Carlos Fernandez, president of the anti-Chavez business
association Fedecamaras, told Reuters.
In a rare political alliance of bosses and workers, Fedecamaras was
coordinating the strike action with anti-government labor union CTV
and with members of the Coordinadora Democratica opposition coalition.
The strike call posed a serious threat to peace talks between the
government and opposition, brokered by Organization of American States
Secretary General Cesar Gaviria.
Gaviria met on Thursday with CTV president Carlos Ortega, a sworn
political enemy of Chavez, to try to persuade him to at least postpone
the strike plan, which members of the government condemned as an
irresponsible and dangerous tactic.
"This is a strike with coup intentions, a strike against the country
and society," pro-Chavez National Assembly President Willian Lara told
OIL THE KEY
Opponents of Chavez, who staged a botched 1992 coup bid six years
before winning elections, say he is trying to install Cuba-style
communism in Venezuela. He argues his policies, including land
redistribution, are aimed at helping the poor.
He says his followers will resist what he calls an "insurrectional
strike" and may take over strike-hit firms.
Caracas remained tense after the government's deployment of troops
last weekend to seize control of the city police from anti-Chavez
mayor Alfredo Pena. The crackdown followed clashes this month
involving Chavez supporters and opponents and riot police that killed
at least two people and injured dozens.
Fernandez said Fedecamaras favored a strike before December, possibly
starting on Monday. The protest could begin as a one-day action and
then extend into an indefinite walkout.
It was not immediately clear whether the opposition had the power to
halt the state-run oil industry, whose sales account for some 80
percent of export revenues. Fedecamaras' Fernandez said strike
organizers had canvassed significant support among oil workers,
especially in the western oil state of Zulia.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said the state oil firm PDVSA would
activate contingency plans to keep oil exports flowing. "We won't
allow PDVSA to stop," Ramirez said.
There are doubts about how effective another strike would be. Many
retailers may be reluctant to close their doors during the lucrative
Christmas shopping period.
The strike may also lack support among the poor working class, where
backing for Chavez is still strong and many are feeling the pinch of
high inflation and unemployment.
The central bank said on Thursday the economy shrank by 5.5 percent in
the third quarter 2002, compared with a year ago.
Earlier this year a labor dispute in the state oil firm PDVSA widened
into an all-out general strike that disrupted oil exports and led
directly to Chavez's brief overthrow in April. The president was later
restored by loyal troops.