- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez declared victory yesterday after his opponents agreed to ease a two-month national strike, but thousands of Venezuelans still lined up for a petition drive seeking his ouster.
Strike organizers, who began the protest Dec. 2 to pressure Mr. Chavez into accepting a referendum on his rule, said Friday they would ease the work stoppage, which was already waning, to protect businesses from bankruptcy.
However, the strike will continue in the vital oil industry, where production was cut from 3 million barrels a day to 150,000 at the height of the strike. Mr. Chavez said yesterday the government had boosted production to 1.8 million barrels a day, but striking workers put the number at 1 million.
"Today is a victorious day," the president said in his weekly television and radio program. "We have beaten once and for all a new destabilizing attempt, a new malevolent and criminal attempt to sink Venezuela."
But opposition leaders who accuse Mr. Chavez of ruining the economy with leftist policies and trying to accumulate too much power were far from conceding defeat.
Thousands of Venezuelans waited hours in the tropical sun to sign petitions at tables nationwide in support of various measures renouncing Mr. Chavez's government and seeking his ouster.
Four persons were injured, including two police officers, when pro-Chavez activists threw stones, fireworks and tear gas canisters near two petition tables in downtown Caracas, Police Chief Henry Vivas said. A car belonging to a private local television channel also was set alight.
The opposition hopes one petition in particular a constitutional amendment reducing Mr. Chavez's term from six to four years will succeed, paving the way for general elections later this year.
Under the constitution, organizers need signatures from 15 percent, or about 1.8 million, of the country's 12 million registered voters a number they expect to surpass easily.
"We're looking for the fastest way to get out of this crisis," said Freddy Hurtado, 56, an advertising agent who complained of poor business even before the strike began. "Given that the president is the cause of the crisis, we're going to get rid of him with our signatures."
The amendment was one of two proposals made by Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President Jimmy Carter. The other calls for a recall referendum on Mr. Chavez's rule halfway through his six-year term, in August.
Mr. Chavez has indicated he is open to both solutions, but said yesterday 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 and again threatened private media outlets, which he accuses of supporting opposition efforts.
Oil makes up a third of Venezuela's economy and provides half of government income. Before the strike, Venezuela was the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a major supplier to the United States.
The strike has cost the nation at least $4 billion in lost oil revenues alone by government estimates. The Santander Central Hispano investment bank has warned that the economy could shrink by as much as 40 percent in the first quarter of this year.

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