Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says recent military actions are but the first step in a plan to seize control of the country's oil industry from opposition strikers.
Less than 48-hours after troops installed a replacement crew aboard a striking gasoline-laden tanker, President Hugo Chavez promised a cleansing of Venezuela's state-run petroleum company. He said oil managers who refuse to return to work will soon be unemployed and in jail.
Appearing on state-run television Sunday, Mr. Chavez called for the arrest of all who impede the normal operation of oil production. The president said his decision is in keeping with a recent supreme court injunction ordering oil workers back on the job.
The opposition-led strike, which has entered its fourth week, has provoked a severe fuel shortage in Venezuela, the world's fifth largest petroleum producer.
President Chavez went on to say that abandoning one's public sector post is a crime. He compared the strike to a cancerous tumor that must be cut out.
Mr. Chavez said, those who try to paralyze oil refineries and other plants are demonstrating that they do not care about the suffering of the country. He labeled strike leaders as a traitorous oil oligarchy that has wounded Venezuela just as surely as if they had stabbed their own mothers in the heart.
Late Friday, Venezuelan troops arrested the opposition-loyalist crew of a tanker on Lake Maracaibo in the northwest of the country. The crew had refused to move the vessel and its 14 million liters of fuel to port. Saturday, Venezuela's defense minister pledged that the military would continue to play an active roll in enforcing government decisions.
The announcement brought immediate condemnations from opposition leaders, who warned of a de facto militarization of the country and the loss of civilian rule. But if opposition leaders fear President Chavez' threats of detention, they were not showing it Sunday. One leader, Alfredo Ramos, sounded more defiant then ever when he addressed an anti-Chavez rally outside Caracas.
Mr. Ramos said, the Venezuelan people have a message for Hugo Chavez: we are headed for the presidential palace to remove you. He said, we will not stop until we are able to walk the path of peace, reconciliation and national reconstruction.
Across Caracas and in many other parts of the country, gasoline stations have run out of fuel. The shortage has begun to affect food distribution, just as most Venezuelans are attempting to buy goods for their Christmas feasts.