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Venezuela Slowly Returns to Normal, But Political Conflict Remains - 2003-03-14

In Venezuela, opponents of President Hugo Chavez continue their efforts to remove him from power, but the embattled leader appears stronger than ever after surviving a coup attempt nearly a year ago and a two-month general strike that ended in early February. Commercial life has returned to the city, but the underlying political conflict rages still.

Shops, restaurants, commercial centers and movie theaters are all open for business now and the almost daily protests that brought tens of thousands to the plazas have abated. The traffic on the streets of Caracas is almost as heavy as it was three months ago before the strike brought a halt to gasoline production.

But all is not well here. The rhetoric from both sides remains tough and the effort to resolve matters through peaceful dialogue has produced very little. Government negotiators did not show up for a round of talks promoted by the Organization of American States on Wednesday and opposition leaders say they see little government willingness to seek an end to the political crisis. Opposition representatives decry what they describe as "verbal violence" directed at them by President Chavez and his ministers.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton says Chavez opponents are the ones promoting strife. He says that, instead of working to regain popular support, the opposition has tried to bring down the government through coup attempts and what he calls "terrorist methods." Mr. Chaderton also claims to have evidence that opposition figures here in Venezuela and in some other countries have plotted to kill the president.

Government spokesmen say the opposition efforts to oust Mr. Chavez through a popular uprising have failed. They note that the two-month strike ended without any concession from the government and that oil production is nearing normal levels in spite of the continuing strike by oil workers unions.

President Chavez fired 16,000 of the striking workers and has replaced them with workers loyal to his government. Government officials say oil production, which fell to 150,000 barrels-a-day in December is now close to the 3.1 million barrels-a-day that was being produced before the strike. The government figures show production of 2.6 million barrels-a-day, but opponents say the level remains far below two million.

Ana Maria Ramirez, who worked with the state-owned oil company's shipping operations before the strike, says even if production is up, the deliveries will be slow.

She says no serious oil transport company will come to Venezuela these days because of the dangers present at Venezuelan ports. She says most companies will avoid the risk and go elsewhere. She also rejects government accusations that striking workers sabotaged facilities. She and other striking executives and workers blame any damage on the inexperienced and ill-trained personnel brought in by Mr. Chavez to operate the oil field equipment and port facilities.

Meanwhile gasoline shortages persist in much of the country in spite of imports of gasoline from Brazil. But government spokesmen say an oil company refinery is now back in operation and that the supply of gasoline will return to normal levels very soon.