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Venezuela's President Remains Defiant Against Strikers - 2002-12-30

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez reiterated Sunday he would not resign, despite a four-week-old general strike aimed at unseating him. Hundreds of thousands of opposition demonstrators marched through the streets of Caracas demanding immediate elections. Mr. Chavez's opponents are planning to march on his presidential palace.

President Chavez hosted his weekly radio and TV show from a gasoline distribution center, in an effort to prove that gas supplies would soon be back to normal. Even by the government's own figures, the country's vital oil industry is three-quarters paralyzed.

As each tanker truck departed, the president led a round of applause for what he calls the heroes of the "great oil battle." According to the government, the strike, which is centered on the oil industry, is the work of those who would like to see the state-owned oil company privatized. He has even suggested that foreign interests may be behind it.

Across the country, motorists have to wait in line for hours, even days, to fill their tanks - a paradox in a country ranking among the world's top five oil exporters. As a result of gas shortages and strikes in other sectors of the economy, supplies of goods, including some food items, are starting to become scarce.

Mr. Chavez, however, says gasoline is on its way from neighboring Trinidad and Curacao, and the situation is under control.

A Brazilian tanker docked Saturday with enough gasoline for a few days. But oil production is less than a quarter of the normal level of about 3 million barrels a day. Refineries are mostly shut down and exports are running at under 10 percent. Venezuela depends on exports of crude oil and refined products for over three quarters of its dollar earnings.

The president said striking oil company employees were guilty of treason and faced possible jail terms. But the strikers themselves remain defiant, and in a speech to an opposition rally, labor leader Carlos Ortega said the president would have to kill them if he wanted the strike lifted.

At Sunday's huge rally, copies of a civil disobedience handbook were distributed as part of the opposition's new strategy to cut short the president's term, which ends in 2007. The disobedience plan includes withholding taxes from the government.

While Mr. Chavez insists he will not step down, saying, "I think I'll never leave," the opposition says it is planning a march on the presidential palace on an as-yet unannounced date, in a bid to force him out. The last time that happened, back in April, 19 demonstrators were shot dead and the president was restored to power after a brief, two-day absence.