Ven troops keep rightists from disrupting oil company

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Wed Dec 4 12:33:42 MST 2002

The National Guard troops in Caracas, which have attacked pro-Chavez groups
on a couple of recent occasions, seems to be holding steady with the
government in this crisis -- maybe the word crisis should be in quotation
marks this time.

December 3, 2002 9:02 p.m. EST
Venezuelan National Guard
Breaks Up Protest at PDVSA

CARACAS, Venezuela -- The national guard broke up an
opposition protest with tear gas and rubber bullets and
chased away dissident Venezuelan generals Tuesday during an
escalating strike to oust President Hugo Chavez.

In his first public comment since the strike began Monday,
Mr. Chavez called the action "a desperate effort" to oust
him by an opposition bent on "destabilization and violence."

"This strike, like all the others, has a hidden agenda:
another coup attempt," Mr. Chavez told reporters. He vowed
that "they won't achieve their sinister goals of
destabilizing the country."

Mr. Chavez accused opposition thugs of harassing
storekeepers to close their shops and provoking clashes with
security forces. He vowed that the strike won't "paralyze"
Venezuela's key oil industry, and he said he wasn't
considering calling a state of emergency, as strikers claim.

Venezuela's energy ministry said late Tuesday that all oil
refineries were producing at 100% capacity and that
shipments were normal for the world's fifth-largest oil

Venezuela provides about 1.5 million barrels a day to the
U.S., or about 14% of demand. A shutdown of 48 hours "is not
a problem," says Peter Gignoux, a London-based analyst with
Solomon Smith Barney, "but things are far from normal, even
for Venezuela." Markets, he says, will begin to feel the
impact -- at least psychologically -- if the strike
continues for three or four days.

Mr. Chavez urged strike leaders to return to negotiations on
elections, mediated by the Organization of American States.
But strike leaders extended their action indefinitely and
called more street protests for Wednesday after the National
Guard chased away protesters and roughed up several

Dozens of oil executives and their supporters, angered by
the armed robbery of a top manager early Tuesday, called a
rally at the headquarters of Venezuela's state-owned oil
monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.

Soldiers swiftly cleared the protest from the area, which
had been decreed an off-limits "security zone" by Mr.
Chavez. They also chased away dissident generals who tried
to convince them to let the protest proceed.

Hours later, troops withdrew to a nearby air force base.
Thousands of protesters celebrated at PDVSA headquarters,
banging pots and pans and blowing whistles. Others protested
outside the air base but were chased away by tear gas.

Rafael Vargas, a top Chavez aide, said the government will
not hesitate to crack down on protests. "PDVSA is a
strategic business. It's the heart of Venezuela. What
happens to PDVSA happens to Venezuela," Mr. Vargas said. Oil
accounts for half of government income and a third of gross
domestic product. The oil company managers are trying to
halt oil operations and provide a critical boost to the
general strike.

Elsewhere, police scuffled with strikers in western
Venezuela, a base for the nation's oil industry. The navy
chased away strikers in small boats trying to block a
navigation canal in Lake Maracaibo used by tankers exporting
one million barrels of crude each day.

Many oil managers were participating in the strike, but
production at rigs and refineries appeared normal. Workers
who had trouble getting to oil rigs because of boaters'
strikes on Monday worked normally Tuesday.

Strike leaders said 75% of oil workers stayed home Tuesday.
Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias insisted only 18%
stayed home. There was no way to reconcile the figures.
Officials at PDVSA conceded that about 65% of company
employees didn't report to work Monday. They stressed,
however, that quick use of a contingency plan kept
operations "normal."

Venezuelans also kept a close watch on the military, which
this fall has seen more than 100 officers rebel against Mr.
Chavez. None of them command troops, and many were stripped
of authority after Mr. Chavez was deposed for two days in an
April coup.

An oil industry shutdown, a general strike and the killings
of 19 people in an April 11 opposition march provoked Mr.
Chavez's ouster on April 12 by dissident officers. Thousands
of civilians rebelled when an interim government abolished
the constitution, and Mr. Chavez was restored to power.

The U.S. appealed to the government and the opposition to
return to peace talks led by OAS Secretary General Cesar
Gaviria. Mr. Gaviria met with Vice President Jose Vicente
Rangel on Tuesday and urged both sides to refrain from
violence. "I'm very worried, of course, and hope this is
solved soon," U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro said after
meeting with Gaviria. Mr. Shapiro also visited the
presidential palace on Tuesday.

The government said talks could resume when the strike
ended. The opposition said the strike will end when the
government resumes talks.

In Caracas, hundreds more stores, banks, food shops and
cafes opened for business on Tuesday, and downtown's traffic
jams resumed. But many events -- including Venezuela's
treasured winter league baseball All-Star Game -- were

The strike began after the Supreme Court voided a Feb. 2
nonbinding referendum on Mr. Chavez's rule, saying the
five-member national elections council needed at least four
votes for approval. The council said Tuesday it had voted
4-1 to prepare the referendum. Mr. Chavez insists the
constitution allows only a binding vote halfway into his
presidency, in August 2003.

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