- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 11, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) Venezuela's Supreme Court said it was suspending its work yesterday, citing political harassment and condemning deadly violence during a general strike by opponents of President Hugo Chavez.
Magistrate Alberto Martinez said the court would only act on the most urgent cases. The decision comes a week after the pro-Chavez Congress voted to fire the court's vice president, saying he wasn't qualified for the job.
Mr. Chavez has long controlled the Supreme Court, where several corruption cases are pending against him.
The high court's announcement raised tensions surrounding the general strike, now in its ninth day. The strike has paralyzed the oil industry, which provides 70 percent of the country's revenue.
Venezuela is losing $50 million a day in oil exports as a result of the general strike, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said yesterday.
He blamed striking oil tanker captains and managers of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela.
"Venezuela is suffering serious damage to its credibility," said Mr. Ramirez.
"We hold you, Mister President of the Republic, responsible. Threaten us and keep threatening us," taunted Manuel Cova, a strike leader and secretary-general of Venezuela's largest labor confederation. "None of that is going to stop us."
Labor, business and opposition political groups called the general strike on Dec. 2 to demand an early referendum on Mr. Chavez's presidency, which ends in 2007. They raised their demand for his ouster after three persons were killed and 28 wounded at an opposition rally Friday. No one has been charged in the shootings.
The strike paralyzed Venezuela's oil industry, the world's No. 5 producer and a top U.S. supplier. Oil generates 70 percent of Venezuela's export earnings, and its shutdown threatened "a national disaster," said Ali Rodriguez, president of the state-owned oil monopoly.
From Washington, the State Department warned U.S. citizens "to defer all travel to Venezuela at this time" and authorized the voluntary departure of eligible family members and non-emergency personnel of the U.S. Embassy in the capital.
Again yesterday, Venezuelans waited for hours for gasoline, formed long lines at banks and stocked up on food and water as the strike created shortages.
"Chavistas," as the president's street supporters are known, surrounded several radio, television and newspaper outlets late Monday and trashed a regional television station. Mr. Chavez accuses the media of supporting the general strike.
The Globovision television station broadcast images of its ransacked headquarters in the western state of Zulia and reported that Chavez supporters broke windows, furniture and equipment. Demonstrators also surrounded Radio Caracas Television, Venevision, Televen and CMT in Caracas.
The demonstrations Monday marked the first response by Chavez activists to the strike and fueled concern that street violence was inevitable.
Staff writer Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report from Washington.

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