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Venezuelan Oil Workers Remain Defiant

Striking Venezuelan oil workers remain defiant one day after the country's supreme court ordered them back to work.

Oil workers taking part in an 18-day national strike to pressure the ouster of President Hugo Chavez say they will continue at all costs the work stoppage which has brought severe fuel shortages to the world's fifth largest petroleum producer.

Friday, Juan Fernandez, head of a civic association called "Oil People," asked a boisterous gathering of petroleum workers if they want to end the strike.

The crowd boomed its response: a definitive "no." Mr. Fernandez then called on President Chavez to take note of the will of the people.

Thursday, Venezuela's Supreme Justice Tribunal responded to a government petition alleging that the strike, which is costing the country $40 million a day in oil export revenues, threatens national security. The tribunal agreed to hear arguments on the legality of the work stoppage within several days and, in the meantime, ordered a temporary halt to the strike.

Officials of the Chavez administration immediately hailed the court action and called on oil workers to obey what they termed a clear, unequivocal order by Venezuela's highest judicial authority.

But oil managers say the strike constitutes a personal decision by tens of thousands of workers that cannot be overruled by any court or institution. They say the only way to end the work stoppage is for President Chavez to agree to their demands and call new elections.

"Oil People" President Juan Fernandez says the decision to strike was not made lightly. Mr. Fernandez says the strikers knew there would be inconveniences, long lines for gasoline and tensions. However, he says, "liberty has no price; it cannot be exchanged for a tank of gasoline, a bottle of whiskey or a ham sandwich."

Venezuela's woes have contributed to a recent spike in global oil prices and prompted statements of increasing concern by the United States and other nations. Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria is on an extended diplomatic mission in Caracas, but so far has had little success in bridging differences between the government and the opposition.