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Chavez Opponents Rally in Caracas on Anniversary of Bolivar's Death - 2002-12-18

In Caracas, tens of thousands of flag-waving opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have marched near the tomb of Simon Bolivar on the anniversary of the 19th century independence hero's death. The march came one day after police fired tear gas at anti-government demonstrators who blocked thoroughfares in the capital.

Meanwhile, government efforts to free the country's oil industry from the clutches of a 16-day national strike are provoking new protests from petroleum workers and Venezuela's merchant marines.

In recent days, troops loyal to embattled President Hugo Chavez have attempted to seize control of oil refineries, tankers and fuel delivery trucks whose crews joined an opposition-led national strike. The Venezuelan leader has gone so far as to tell soldiers to ignore any judicial injunction that impedes the execution of his orders.

The actions have provoked lawsuits and bitter dissent. Oil workers say troops and replacement workers are unqualified to operate complicated and potentially dangerous machinery.

Days after armed troops took control of a tanker on Lake Maracaibo in northwest Venezuela, a group of striking merchant marines appealed to Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria for help.

Merchant marine Captain Anibal Abad said: " I ask you in your capacity as a mediator, to intervene to guarantee the rights of all of my colleagues [in the merchant marines] that have been flagrantly subverted by the Venezuelan government."

Mr. Gaviria is on an extended mission in Caracas, attempting to broker an accord between the government and the opposition.

Venezuela's normal oil output of about 2.5 million barrels a day has ground to a halt, shutting off oil exports and forcing the government to look into ways of importing fuel.

Opposition leaders have been disheartened by recent statements by President Chavez insisting he has no intention of relinquishing power. But they cheered Monday's resolution by the Organization of American States that rejects any attempt to subvert Venezuela's democratic process. Striking union leader Carlos Ortega hailed the OAS action as a hemispheric affirmation of the opposition's right to peaceful protest

Mr. Ortega said the resolution backs the right of Venezuelans to choose their leaders and signals that attacks on the country's democratic institutions is incompatible with the rules that govern the inter-American system.

For their part, government officials label the opposition as coup-plotters, attempting to force the ouster of a democratically-elected government through illegal means that bring great harm to the nation.