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Venezuela Opposition Extends General Strike for 2nd Day - 2002-12-03

Opposition leaders in Venezuela are calling for a a second day of a general strike Tuesday by the country's workers. The work stoppage began Monday in an attempt to force early presidential elections. The focus Tuesday will be on the oil industry, the heart of the country's economy, and on the armed forces.

Leaders of political opposition to President Hugo Chavez call Monday's general strike a total success. However, Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias says, while the opposition claims an 80 percent success rate, only 20 percent failed to show up for work.

Nonetheless, Carlos Ortega, president of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, the CTV, announced the strike would continue through Tuesday, and there is still no indication how long it may last.

Observers generally agree that there are two key variables. One is the opposition's ability to bring operations to a halt in the key oil industry. The other is the attitude of the armed forces, which President Chavez claims supports his leftist "revolution".

The oil industry represents about 70 percent of Venezuela's export earnings and provides the government with around half its income. An oil strike in April triggered a general strike which in turn led to street violence in which 19 died and the armed forces withdrawing support from the president. While labor minister Iglesias said the state oil corporation, Petroleos de Venezuela was unaffected, its chairman Ali Rodriguez admitted only three quarters of its blue collar staff showed up for work Monday afternoon.

However, he added that operations were barely affected and fuel supplies were good for ten days, contradicting opposition claims that gasoline could run out by mid-week.

As for the armed forces, the true situation remains largely a mystery. Key command positions are held by loyalist officers, but the bulk of the military is assumed to be "institutional", a term that implies it would not accompany the president if, for example, he sought to use repression.

If the government were forced to militarize the oil industry in order to guarantee production, sources say, the situation could become delicate.