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Venezuela Braces for More Strikes - 2002-12-05

Venezuela is bracing itself for a fourth day Thursday of a general strike called by the opposition to force populist President Hugo Chavez to call early elections, or resign. Anti-Chavez protestors beat pots and pans in different parts of Caracas after nightfall Wednesday in the now familiar form of protest against the populist President.

Earlier, opposition leaders announced the general strike that began Monday will continue for a fourth day Thursday. The head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation, Carlos Ortega, said protest actions in the streets also will continue.

Street actions, he said, will continue in an orderly manner until the Venezuelan people accomplish their objectives. Over the past two days, national guard troops have dispersed some anti-government demonstrations with tear gas, and clashes have broken out between pro and anti-Chavez demonstrators.

The opposition made up of business, labor, and political parties is demanding that Mr. Chavez agree to an early vote on his rule. Mr. Chavez, overwhelmingly elected President in 1998 and again in 2000, is refusing to bow to their demands. He has said he will agree to holding a recall referendum only in August which would be halfway through his six-year term as stipulated under the Venezuelan constitution.

The opposition has rejected this saying Mr. Chavez must step down now because his leftist policies are driving Venezuela into economic and social turmoil.

General support for the strike has weakened since Monday. Labor Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias said Wednesday that the strike has failed because Venezuela has not been paralyzed.

But the continuing shutdown could threaten Venezuela's vital oil industry. As the world's fifth largest supplier of petroleum, crude prices have gone up this week over market fears that oil shipments may be disrupted. Venezuela is a main supplier of oil to the United States.

The Organization of American States is trying to mediate a peaceful solution to the crisis. However, despite the personal efforts of OAS head Cesar Gaviria, who has been in Caracas for the past several weeks little apparent progress has been made. On Wednesday, thousands of anti-government protestors marched through Caracas to deliver a letter to Mr. Gaviria calling on him to invoke an OAS clause that would isolate governments considered undemocratic.

Mr. Chavez, a former army paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, has seen his popular support decline dramatically since taking office in 1999. However, opinion polls show he still has the support of about one-third of the population many of them poor.

Amidst the rising tensions, the Venezuelan President cancelled a planned trip to Brazil Thursday to meet with leaders of the South American trade bloc, Mercosur. Government officials offered no explanation for the cancellation.