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General Strike Underway in Venezuela as Groups Push for Early Election

The fourth general strike in a year is under way in Venezuela, as opposition groups try to force President Hugo Chavez to agree to an early election. But the government is insisting the strike is both illegal and a failure.

Negotiations between government and opposition, mediated by Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, have not produced an agreement on the so-called "electoral solution" to Venezuela's political crisis.

Although talks have not broken down, the opposition, which accuses President Chavez of being authoritarian and incompetent, is seeking to bring extra pressure to bear by staging a fourth national strike.

As expected, the CTV labor confederation, the business association Fedecamaras, and the Democratic Coordinator, which represents opposition parties and non-government organizations, have declared the stoppage an overwhelming success.

CTV Secretary General Manuel Cova said the strike was 80 percent effective. He says 16 million people out of a total population of 24 million supported it.

But President Chavez told the nation on his regular Sunday broadcast program that the strike had "F-for-failure written on its forehead."

The government has said the strike is illegal, and the president threatened that owners of shopping malls, for example, could be prosecuted for violating the constitutional right-to-work if they closed their doors.

As has become the pattern, public sector workers and most transport operators, together with the partially state-owned heavy industry complex in the east of the country, are working fairly normally.

Many managers in the key oil industry, which accounts for about 70 percent of the country's export earnings, stayed away from work. But the implementation of a contingency plan kept the oil flowing, and most blue-collar workers were at their jobs.

All this could change if the strike is extended or becomes indefinite. Observers say if that should happen the situation in the oil industry, and possibly within the ranks of the armed forces, could become unsustainable, and a violent outcome could not be ruled out.