- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

The United States yesterday said elections should be part of the resolution to a deadly conflict between the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and thousands of protesters whose strike has crippled the country and rattled world oil markets.
Late yesterday, Mr. Chavez's government offered to discuss a timetable for elections.
"The government has expressed at the negotiating table its willingness to work on an electoral timetable in the course of the next sessions," said Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, who is working to mediate the crisis.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez sent national guard troops to gasoline distribution plants to crush the protests, aimed at forcing him to resign or call early elections. The weeklong crisis has left three dead and more than two dozen wounded.
Careful not to be accused of interfering in Venezuela's internal affairs, the Bush administration has thrown its full support behind a mediation effort by Mr. Gaviria.
"We are saying they should have a dialogue, and we think that elections are certainly part of the resolution," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. "We are indeed coordinating with others in the hemisphere to support the efforts of the secretary-general."
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the United States supports a "peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution" to the crisis.
Mr. Chavez was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later after the adoption of a new constitution. Voters are scheduled to go to the polls in a recall election halfway through his six-year term, which will be in August.
After a failed coup in April, Mr. Chavez's government opened a dialogue with the opposition, but the talks collapsed with the beginning of the mass protests last week. On Saturday, Mr. Chavez said that martial law was "a possibility, depending on the evolution of the situation."
The strike has disrupted refineries, cut oil output by half and stopped all oil exports from the world's fifth-largest supplier, whose biggest client is the United States. Oil markets, already nervous about the threat of war in Iraq, yesterday saw a 20-cent jump of crude oil prices to $27.13.
"We face a national disaster," said Ali Rodriguez, who heads state-run Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). "Petroleum exporting activity has been paralyzed."
He warned that if Venezuela fails to meet its petroleum export commitments this month, it might have to pay a $6 billion penalty.
Mr. Boucher noted that the strike has "affected the availability of supplies from Venezuela they've declared force majeure in some cases and not been able to deliver."
The opposition warned that the conflict would worsen if Mr. Chavez failed to meet the protesters' demands.
"The president must resign or present at the negotiating table a plan for an electoral process to be held at the latest in the first quarter of the coming year," said Manuel Cova, secretary-general of the Venezuelan Workers' Confederation, one of the strike's organizers.
Employees yesterday grounded Venezuela's main airline, Aeropostal, in support of the Chavez opposition.
Shortly after three persons were killed at an anti-Chavez rally on Friday, the State Department issued a statement saying the United States was "deeply concerned that this deplorable act will lead to an escalation of violence and confrontation in Venezuela."
It also called on the Venezuelan government "to exercise its constitutional responsibilities and respect and protect the people's fundamental freedoms."
The opposition blamed Mr. Chavez for the deadly attack.
Even Mr. Chavez's wife, Marisabel de Chavez, who is divorcing him, appealed to the president to listen to his opponents.
"President, please, in the name of your daughter, in the name of your family, in the name of the country, listen to the people," she said in a television interview, with the couple's daughter by her side.
But Mr. Chavez said he would never step down.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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