CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of thousands of foes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez signed petitions calling for early elections Sunday, even as the leftist leader declared victory over a two-month opposition strike and demanded punishment for its organizers.
The nationwide petition drive was the latest challenge to the populist president of the oil-rich nation. One petition calls for a constitutional amendment reducing Chavez's term from six to four years, so that it would end in 2004. Another would declare Chavez's term over this year and pave the way for immediate elections.
Under the constitution, organizers need signatures from 15%, or 1.8 million, of the country's 12 million registered voters.
Albis Munoz, vice president of Venezuela's largest business chamber, claimed as many as 4 million people signed Sunday. The figure could not be verified. Organizers said they would collect more signatures today.
"We're looking for the fastest way to get out of this crisis," said Freddy Hurtado, 56, an advertising agent. "Given that the president is the cause of the crisis, we're going to get rid of him with our signatures."
The amendment route was one of two proposals made by Nobel Peace laureate and former President Jimmy Carter to end Venezuela's political deadlock. The other calls for a recall referendum on Chavez's rule in August, halfway through his six-year term.
Chavez has indicated that he is open to both solutions but said Sunday that he never would give in to his opponents, whom he labeled "coup plotters, fascists and terrorists." He vowed to hold strike leaders accountable in the courts.
"There is no strike here. We faced a terrorist coup plan and we've already defeated it," Chavez said on state radio and TV.
But opposition leaders refused to concede defeat, even as they scaled back the strike. Shops and businesses across the country have reopened. Banks and schools also are resuming normal operations.
State oil firm employees, however, are maintaining their stoppage. Chavez said Sunday that production is fast approaching 2 million barrels per day, about two-thirds of pre-strike levels. Strikers said output was only half that but acknowledged that it is rising.