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Chavez Tries to Prevent Strike - 2001-12-07

In Venezuela, the government of President Hugo Chavez is trying to head-off a potentially crippling one-day strike planned for next Monday. It was called by the country's business sector to protest a series of new economic laws. President Chavez now says the laws, which were adopted by decree, can be modified.

Mr. Chavez met Thursday with representatives of various sectors of Venezuelan society to find ways out of the country's political impasse. Taking part in the meetings were some representatives of the business sector, the heads of media companies, and a representative of the Catholic Church.

Thursday's talks came in the midst of growing political tension in this oil-rich nation, as a call for a one-day nationwide strike Monday gained increasing support.

Venezuela's largest business association, Fedecamaras, called the strike last week in protest against 49 laws that Mr. Chavez passed by decree under powers given to him by the Congress. Fedecamaras objects to the laws, because it says they will give the government too great a role in industries ranging from agriculture to oil. Mr. Chavez, a leftist populist who was elected president three years ago, says the laws are aimed at stimulating production and promoting social justice.

According to the business association, more than 3,000 companies comprising eight million workers will participate in the strike. Opposition-controlled labor unions, including oil and transport workers, also say they will support Monday's 12-hour work stoppage.

In the face of growing pressure, President Chavez Wednesday indicated the laws can be amended by the Congress. He said: "If any sector of the country is not in agreement with the law of small- and medium-sized businesses because it believes it will be affected, that sector has the right to come up with its own proposal and present it to the Congress." He went on to say there is a procedure under the Venezuelan constitution for presenting such amendments.

Mr. Chavez had earlier refused to contemplate changing the laws. But so far, Fedecamaras is not calling off its strike, noting that Mr. Chavez' supporters control the Congress. Fedecamaras head Pedro Carmona says the strike is aimed at changing the course of the country. "The American-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce has not formally joined the strike, but is supporting the position of Fedecamaras," he said.

Chamber Vice President Antonio Herrerra told VOA Mr. Chavez' decrees undermine the private sector. "For a long time it was said: 'Don't look at what the government says, see what they do,'" explained Mr. Herrerra. "Well now, they've gone and done something. They've proclaimed some laws, which are totally against the private sector - they have an ideological configuration. Certainly, they have some good parts to them, but they have what we call the 'poisonous articles,' which absolutely go against the grain of private property and against the clearness and transparency in public administration. ... And they are absolutely counterproductive to the promotion of investment."

The business sector particularly objects to the Land Reform law, which allows for expropriation, and a petroleum law that will increase royalty rates.

President Chavez has dismissed these views and the strike as an attempt by what he calls Venezuela's "oligarchy" to manipulate the political situation. He says his decrees, including the Land Reform Law, will remedy injustice in a situation where one percent of Venezuelans own more than 60 percent of the country's arable land.

On Friday, a group calling for Mr. Chavez' resignation plans to march through Caracas to the presidential palace. However, they will be met by Chavez supporters, a situation that has created fears of possible political violence. Security in the city is being increased in anticipation of Friday's protests.