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Venezuelan Oil Minister Upbeat on Prospects for Oil Industry - 2002-12-31


Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said Monday the government was winning the battle against a four-week-old general strike that virtually shut down the state-owned oil industry. Meanwhile, street clashes between government and opposition supporters in two cities underlined the risk of serious violence.

Minister Ramirez, who was speaking at a breakfast with foreign correspondents, was upbeat about the prospects for the country's vital oil industry, despite what he admitted was serious damage done by the strike. The world's fifth biggest exporter of oil has seen its exports slashed in December to a 10th of their normal levels, and motorists are still having to wait in line for hours to fill their tanks.

The minister said he expected domestic gasoline supplies would be back to normal once the El Palito refinery, on the Caribbean coast, comes back on line in about 10 days. By next week, he said, crude oil production would be around 1.2 million barrels a day, or approximately 40 percent of normal. But exports would remain below par for some time yet.

Opposition sources, however, and some independent experts, suggested the minister's version was overly optimistic. Dissident oil company managers continue to insist that the vast majority of workers in the state oil corporation, Petroleos de Venezuela, remain on strike, and that it will be impossible to restart refineries and normalize production without them.

Although there has been less violence on the streets than expected during the strike, tensions remain high as the opposition continues to push for the resignation of leftist President Hugo Chavez. In the western port city of Maracaibo, police had to disperse rival groups of demonstrators with teargas, and similar clashes took place in the capital, Caracas, after a dissident military officer was arrested by the state security police, known as the Disip.

General Carlos Alfonzo is one of a large group of officers who have been occupying a Caracas square since October in a peaceful protest against the government. His whereabouts, and the charges against him, were not immediately revealed, though he was reportedly being held at military intelligence headquarters.

Meanwhile, in Washington, a state department spokesman reiterated U.S. concern over possible outbreaks of violence and urged the two sides to reach a peaceful, electoral solution to the crisis.

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