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Venezuela anti-Chavez strike impact seen patchy
Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

by Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Foes of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez scrambled Wednesday to shore up support for an anti-government strike planned for Monday, but its economic impact seemed limited as key state industries, including the oil and steel sectors, were expected to keep working.

Five days before the 12-hour strike, billed by opposition leaders as another blow in their political battle against the left-wing president, the government was confidently predicting its failure.

Chavez, an outspoken ex-paratrooper who survived a brief coup by rebel military officers in April, has dismissed the strike as a part of a new attempt to oust him from the presidency of world's fifth largest oil exporter.

Six months after a short-lived Apr. 11-14 coup, the shutdown is the latest test of strength between opponents and foes of Chavez, who was elected by a landslide vote in 1998 with promises to tackle poverty and corruption.

"The coup plotters have lost. Monday's strike will not achieve anything," Planning Minister Felipe Perez told reporters.

Opposition leaders, who blame his interventionist reforms for damaging the economy, called the stoppage after giving Chavez an ultimatum to resign or hold early elections. The president, who returns Saturday from a visit to Europe, has refused to step down before his mandate ends in 2007.

"The strike is one more step against the government," Hugo Fonseca, a member of the opposition coalition Coordinadora Democratica, told Reuters.

"Cassius Clay was a great heavyweight but he didn't have a knock-out punch. He'd dance and jab. He'd win by points or his opponent would collapse. This strike is another jab," he said.

Since April, political tensions and discontent in the military have stoked fears of fresh coup attempts. A national strike, spearheaded by dissident managers from the PDVSA state oil firm, helped trigger April's rebellion. Loyal troops restored Chavez to power, but not before more than 60 people died in street violence.


Strike organizers, the Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) and the nation's largest private sector business association, Fedecamaras, insist that they have widespread support and have urged Venezuela's 40,000 state oil workers to stay at home.

But officials said on Wednesday that even if they do walk out it would not impact production.

"There's not going to be any impact on exports or production. There are definitely some people in PDVSA who will join the strike, some of the executive staff probably, but not the majority," said a Ministry of Energy spokesman.

The previous strike by dissident PDVSA managers, which badly damaged the country's oil production, was a key element in the mounting pressure on Chavez before April's coup. Oil sales account for up to 50 percent of government revenues and 80 percent of its export revenues.

Blue collar oil labor unions recently signed a new two-year collective agreement with the government and have previously said they will not allow oil flows to be interrupted.

But their collective position remained unclear. Fedepetrol, the nation's largest oil workers trades union, said it would decide Thursday whether to join the shutdown.

A spokeswoman for Venezuela's state holding firm CVG, which runs the nation's basic aluminum and steel industries, said their operations would not be affected because pro-government unions mostly controlled the local labor branches.

Strong doubts also remained whether transport workers would join the shutdown.

Strike organizers said most private banks would be closed to the public and health workers, merchant marine and education unions plan to join in the walkout. Many shops and commercial businesses in Caracas were also expected to participate. (Additional reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez, Silene Ramirez and Matthew Robinson)

Copyright 2002, Reuters News Service

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