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Venezuelans Rally, Sign Petition for Early Elections

In Venezuela, hundreds-of-thousands of people took to the streets and plazas again on Sunday in support of a petition drive they hope will lead to early elections to remove President Hugo Chavez from power. They say, they easily surpassed the 15 percent of registered voters required by the constitution to begin an amendment process. But the embattled Mr. Chavez shows no sign of giving in.

Anti-Chavez crowds chanted, cheered and sang as the sun set on Venezuela Sunday. They were buoyed by the turnout for what opposition leaders call the "firmazo," or big sign-up. All over the country, people stood in long lines to sign petitions calling for, among other things, a change in the constitution that would allow an early election.

Sunday was to have been the day of a referendum for voters to either approve or disapprove of Mr. Chavez continuing in power. But the non-binding electoral action sought by the opposition was rejected by the Venezuelan Supreme Court last month. Later, opposition leaders embraced a plan presented by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to seek a change in the constitution that would shorten the presidential term. This would allow for an election sometime before August, when a binding referendum could be organized under the current constitution.

If President Chavez was worried by the "firmazo" turnout, he showed no sign of it. During his weekly television appearance, he celebrated his fourth year in office, and declared a victory over what he describes as rich oligarchs who want the country for themselves.

He said that if anyone wants to remove him from office, they must follow the law established by the constitution, not the dictates of what he called the "owners of the old power of the oligarchy."

Mr. Chavez called the opposition's general strike, which started on December second, a failure because banks and most stores will reopen this week. Opposition leaders say they are easing the strike, in order to prevent businesses from going bankrupt. They say this is a tactical move, not a sign of weakness.

Petroleum workers are continuing their strike, but government spokesmen say the oil sector is starting to recuperate. Oil production is now at over one-million barrels a day, up from around 200,000 barrels a month ago. This, however, is still only about a third of Venezuela's normal output. Venezuela was the world's fifth largest oil producer before the strike, and a main supplier of crude oil to the United States. Oil revenue accounts for a third of the government's budget. So far, experts say, the strike has cost Venezuela around $4 billion in lost oil revenue. They also say damage to some petroleum industry facilities may never be undone.