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Venezuelan Opposition Extends Strike - 2002-12-05

The Venezuelan opposition has announced it is extending its three-day general strike against President Hugo Chavez into a fourth day. The aim is to intensify street protests in an attempt to force the president to bring forward elections.

Yet another massive opposition march snaked its way through the streets of Caracas Wednesday: this one on its way to the Gran Melia hotel, where Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS) is staying. Dr Gaviria has been trying for weeks to forge an agreement between government and opposition that would allow the two sides to settle their differences via the ballot-box.

His efforts, and a three-day strike, have so far not persuaded government negotiators nor President Chavez himself to offer an early election or referendum. So opposition leaders today took their supporters to the secretary-general's hotel and handed him a document in which they asked for the OAS to use its so-called Democratic Charter against the Venezuelan leader. The Charter, which dates from last year and has yet to be used, provides for the isolation of undemocratic governments.

There is little indication, however, that the organization's member nations are prepared to take such a step. And meanwhile, the opposition has decided, to the surprise of many observers, to continue extending its strike day-by-day.

Assuming there is no move from the armed forces, which cannot entirely be ruled out, the only way of forcing the president to concede an election is by paralyzing the state-owned oil industry, which accounts for around half of government revenues. So far, the strike's impact on the oil industry has been limited, despite opposition attempts to create an impression of impending doom.

However, by late Wednesday there were indications that the situation could be worsening. The crew members of an oil tanker carrying almost 300,000 liters of gasoline announced they were joining the strike. They anchored across the access channel to Lake Maracaibo, heart of the oil industry, partially blocking the sea-lane.

If the oil situation continues to deteriorate, the government has a number of options, none of them appealing. Any form of repression, observers say, might merely exacerbate the situation, putting to the test the president's control of the armed forces.