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Venezuelan Strike Continues to Affect Petroleum Operations

In Venezuela, an opposition-led strike against populist President Hugo Chavez continues to affect petroleum operations in the oil-rich nation, as the job action entered its fifth day Friday. At the same time, government and opposition negotiators are expected to resume talks mediated by the Organization of American States to resolve the political crisis.

Venezuela's vital oil industry is grinding to a halt, as the opposition-led strike aimed at pressuring President Chavez to call early elections continues to gain strength in the petroleum sector. Captains of tankers have idled their vessels in sympathy with the job action, while dock workers have stopped loading oil and natural gas.

Also, most executives and administrative staff of the giant state-owned oil firm, PDVSA, have stopped working, in protest against the Chavez government.

Oil accounts for 75 percent of exports, and half the government's income. Venezuela also is a main supplier of petroleum to the United States. Oil prices on international markets have already increased because of the impact of the Venezuelan crisis.

Jose Toro Hardy, a former president of PDVSA, told VOA, until now, Venezuela was always a steady petroleum supplier. "In the past several times, we have seen that oil prices go up because of several crises in the Middle East," he said. "But this is the first time that oil prices are going up because of the crisis in Venezuela. Venezuela has always been considered the most, let's say, secure oil provider."

However, Mr. Hardy said, the refinery and other operations can be revived in a few days, once the strike is over, and there should be no permanent damage.

President Chavez Thursday ordered the military to provide security for the oil industry, and stop what he called the sabotage of the "heart of Venezuela."

Mr. Chavez and officials of his government have declared the strike a failure. Yet, late Thursday, the government agreed to return to the negotiations with the opposition, which are being mediated by OAS head Cesar Gaviria. The opposition made up of labor unions, business, and political parties staged the strike to press Mr. Chavez to call early elections. It is the fourth such general strike in less than a year. The opposition accuses Mr. Chavez of destroying the country by implementing leftist economic and social policies.

The populist leader, who won landslide elections in 1998, and again in 2000 under a new constitution, refuses to bow to opposition demands. He has only agreed to a referendum on his rule next August, halfway through his six-year term, as provided for under the constitution. However, Venezuela's electoral board Tuesday voted in favor of a non-binding referendum on February Second. But the government says it will challenge that decision in the supreme court.

Opposition negotiator Americo Martin tells VOA what his side wants is for Mr. Chavez to agree to early elections after the February vote.

He said, what we need is an electoral formula as a solution to this crisis, and what we want the government to do is to agree to a date for these elections shortly after February.

Such a move would require a constitutional amendment. But according to Mr. Martin, some government members of the national assembly seem willing to join the opposition in approving such a measure.

After taking office in 1999, Mr. Chavez had the support of more than 70 percent of Venezuelans, who hoped the populist president would end corruption, and significantly alleviate the poverty that affects 80 percent of the population. However, his support has slipped dramatically since then, and opinion polls say only up to 30 percent of Venezuelans still back Mr. Chavez. An opposition-led general strike in April ended in violence, and the deaths of 19 people in clashes between and pro- and anti-Chavez partisans. Following the bloodshed, dissident military commanders briefly ousted President Chavez, but loyalist troops and his supporters swept him back into power.