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Strike Disrupts Oil Flow in Venezuela

Latin America: Union and business groups stage protest that closes down industries. President tries to prevent media coverage of the unrest.

April 10, 2002|From Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela — One of the world's largest oil refineries virtually shut down and industries and businesses closed Tuesday during a general strike that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tried to keep off radio and TV.

Strikers at the headquarters of Venezuela's state oil monopoly clashed with dozens of Chavez supporters before 500 police officers used tear gas to separate the two sides. One group of strike supporters severely beat at least six pro-government protesters.

Large industry and commerce closed after the 1-million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation and Fedecamaras, Venezuela's largest business federation, called a 24-hour nationwide strike supporting an ongoing work slowdown at the government oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.

Late Tuesday, workers confederation chief Carlos Ortega extended the strike by 24 hours, or until Thursday morning, insisting that the government meet oil workers' demands.

PDVSA workers are protesting a company board appointed Feb. 25 by Chavez, saying the board is unqualified and will tighten Chavez's control over a corporation that cherishes its autonomy. Chavez insists that the board is qualified and that Venezuelan law gives him authority to make the appointments.

The slowdown has oil markets on alert after Iraq's decision to stop oil exports for 30 days in furtherance of its demand that Israeli forces leave Palestinian territories.

Iraq and Venezuela, both OPEC members, jointly export about 4.5 million barrels of oil per day. Venezuela is among the top four oil exporters worldwide, sending nearly 1 million barrels of crude daily to the United States alone. That makes it the No. 3 U.S. supplier.

Labor and business leaders declared Tuesday's strike a success, with an 80% compliance rate. But Fedecamaras director Gregorio Rojas acknowledged that it wasn't as sweeping as a Dec. 10 strike that virtually paralyzed the country. Tuesday's strike, he noted, was called only on Sunday.

The nation's TV and radio stations could not independently report the strike for much of the day because Chavez used a law forcing them to broadcast government transmissions. Transmissions Monday and Tuesday showed people at work, pro-government rallies and claims that the strike was a failure. Though by late Tuesday, the broadcasts were tapering off.

"No one is going to overthrow this government," Chavez said. "I can tell the country, the world, that the country isn't paralyzed, the situation is absolutely normal. . . . Oil is being produced and being exported."

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