Huge Pro-Chavez Rally Opposes Venezuela Strike
Thursday, January 23, 2003; 1:58 PM
CARACAS, Venezuela - Several hundred thousand supporters of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez rallied in Caracas on Thursday to back the
defiant leftist leader who is resisting an opposition strike battering
To the sound of throbbing drums and trilling whistles, followers of
the populist president marched from the east and the west of the
capital to converge on a downtown avenue. The government brought many
of them by bus from other cities.
Chavez called the rally to protest the opposition strike, which has
ground on for more than seven weeks, slashing oil output by the
world's No. 5 petroleum exporter.
Chanting "Hey, hey, Chavez is here to stay," the marchers, many waving
pro-government banners, noisily rejected opposition calls for the
president to resign and hold early elections.
Several carried Cuban flags and portraits of the guerrilla legend
Ernesto "Che" Guevara, reflecting the left-wing ideology that
permeates the president's self-styled "revolution."
The nation is tensely divided over Chavez's rule. While foes accuse
him of dragging Venezuela toward Cuba-style communism, his backers
hail him as a champion of the poor.
"We have to support our president," said Chavez supporter Atilio Mata,
a 50-year-old grocer wearing a red beret, a symbol of Chavez's
The 53-day-old opposition shutdown has choked off the government's oil
income, triggering a fiscal crisis and forcing the government to
temporarily suspend foreign currency trading and slash budget spending
for 2003. The Central Bank is preparing foreign exchange controls to
stem a sharp slide in the bolivar currency and falling international
Supplies of gasoline and some food items have been disrupted, causing
anger and frustration among the population.
The cut in oil exports has helped push up the price on international
markets at a time when it is already high because of fears of a
possible war in Iraq, another major producer.
Thursday's rally rekindled fears of violence. At least six people have
been killed in clashes between rival protesters since the strike began
Dec. 2. To avoid confrontation, opposition supporters stayed at home
IS CHAVEZ WINNING?
Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and survived a short-lived coup last
year, has vowed to beat the strike, condemning his striking foes as "terrorists"
attempting to topple him. "Bit by bit, we're defeating the chaos," he
said late Wednesday.
The combative former paratrooper has proved many pundits wrong by
holding out against the crippling strike for so long.
"I think he's winning this round ... his strategy is to wear down the
opposition and wait. It's a war of attrition he thinks he can win,"
Michael Gavin, Head of Latin American Economic Research for UBS
Warburg, told Reuters.
The president, who appears to have the backing of the armed forces,
has sent troops to take over strike-hit oil installations and raid
food plants the government alleges are hoarding products. One of the
plants raided last week was a local bottling affiliate of Coca-Cola Co.
Thursday's pro-Chavez marchers carried a huge model of a Coca-Cola
bottle painted with the words" "Don't drink it!."
Gavin predicted Chavez could hold out against the opposition onslaught
in the short term but the pressure for elections was building. "Chavez
will have to choose between remaining democratic and staying in office,"
Opposition hopes of testing Chavez in a national vote next month were
dashed Wednesday when the Supreme Court suspended a nonbinding
referendum on his rule planned for Feb 2.
Opposition leaders accused the tribunal of bias. They said the ruling
showed how the president had taken over the nation's democratic
institutions and was ruling like a dictator.
Government supporters Thursday tore down an opposition billboard
supporting the suspended Feb. 2 referendum.
Chavez tells foes they should wait until Aug. 19, halfway through his
term, when the constitution allows for a binding referendum on his
rule, which is due to end in early 2007.
Oil production has been creeping back up in recent weeks as the
government struggles to restart oil fields and refineries. It says
that output is now running at more than 1 million barrels a day,
around a third of pre-strike levels But strike leaders say production
is still around one fifth of normal.
The United States, alarmed by the cutoff of more than 13 percent of
its oil imports because of the Venezuela crisis, is part of a six-nation
"group of friends" which will meet in Washington Friday to discuss
ways of solving the conflict.
In a broadcast late Wednesday, Chavez voiced reservations about the "friends"
group -- which also includes Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Spain and
Portugal. He insisted it should be expanded to include nations like
China, Russia and France. (Additional reporting by Fabian Cambero)