Bank workers joined the 39 day old strike against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Thursday, tightening the stranglehold which has already come close to shutting down the country's vital oil industry.
For several weeks, Venezuelan banks have been working restricted hours as part of a general strike aimed at forcing Mr. Chavez to agree to an early election or referendum on his presidency. Long lines outside banks, as well as at gas stations hit by the stoppage in the oil industry, have become a common sight.
But Thursday the lines all but disappeared, as a large part of the banking system shut down on the first day of a 48 hour bank workers' strike. The bank unions claimed the strike was 80 percent effective, while the banking superintendency said seven out of ten workers ignored the call. Independent reports suggested the unions' claim, though probably exaggerated, was closer to the truth, and the interbank payments system was virtually halted.
On Friday the bank workers plan to deliver a document to the delegation of the Organization of American States, the OAS, which has been seeking to broker an agreement between the Chavez government and the opposition Democratic Coordinator umbrella group. The document demands a rapid solution to the increasingly severe crisis.
Legislator Nicolas Maduro, of the ruling MVR party, said the banks would pay dearly for what he called their decision to use other people's money in a bid to bring down the government. He threatened them with a similar purge to that currently under way in the state oil corporation, Petroleos de Venezuela, where many striking managers have been sacked.
Opposition demonstrators, meanwhile, held rallies outside a number of office buildings across the country belonging to the oil corporation. In some places local media reported clashes between government and opposition supporters and in Caracas, there were reports of gunfire aimed at demonstrators, allegedly by hooded government supporters. No one was reported shot, however.