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Venezuela Strike Leaders Say Protest Was Successful - 2002-04-09

Businesses throughout Venezuela closed down after the Venezuelan Workers Confederation, the CTV, and Fedecamaras, Venezuela's largest business federation, held a general strike in support of the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela. The oil company's management is in dispute with the government over appointments to the board of directors.

This is the second time in less than six months that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has faced the combined might of business and the labor unions. Last December, Fedecamaras, with the help of the unions, staged a one-day work stoppage in protest over a package of laws.

Some seventy percent of businesses in the normally bustling downtown area were closed.

While public transport functioned normally, passengers were scarce. Reports from towns and cities elsewhere in the country painted a similar picture.

Labor and business leaders declared the strike a success, despite the government's efforts to downplay the event. The nation's TV and radio stations could not independently report the strike for much of the day because Mr. Chavez used his power to oblige them to broadcast government transmissions giving his side of the story.

The shutdown has oil markets on alert. Within days, oil analysts say, both domestic energy supplies and exports - which supply Venezuela with 80 percent of its foreign earnings and half of government revenues - are likely to dry up. The government, however, shows no sign of backing down.

On his Sunday radio and TV program, Mr. Chavez announced the dismissal of seven senior executives from the oil company and said he was prepared to dismiss the entire management if necessary. Describing the rebels as a privileged elite who had been running the industry as a private fiefdom, he declared his intention of opening up what he called the "black box" of Petroleos de Venezuela. With the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, this country is a major supplier to the U.S. market of both crude oil and oil products.

The wholly-owned Petroleos de Venezuela subsidiary Citgo operates over 13,000 gas stations in the United States. In recent days, the international oil market, already jittery over events in the Middle East, has also been looking with some concern at the situation in Venezuela. But as yet no solution to the crisis is in sight.