- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002

The White House applied pressure yesterday on Venezuela to hold prompt elections and to protect the rights of the people in the violence-racked country even as supporters and foes of President Hugo Chavez called for more street demonstrations in the capital, Caracas.
"The United States is deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation," the White House said in a statement. It cautioned there could be further polarization and more violence if negotiations did not begin in the next few days.
"The United States is convinced that the only peaceful and politically viable path out of the crisis is through the holding of early elections," said the statement issued by presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer.
The permanent council of the Organization of American States met in Washington while OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria tried to mediate in Caracas. A senior State Department official, Thomas Shannon, a deputy assistant secretary, was sent to Caracas on Thursday. He met with Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton Matos yesterday.
The Bush administration is supporting the OAS in seeking a solution to the turmoil, while urging the Venezuelan government to develop a formula quickly for elections.
The United States and Peru prepared parallel resolutions designed to take steps to preserve democracy under the Inter-American democratic charter, which was adopted last year.
Mr. Gaviria, who reported by video on his mediation efforts, indicated negotiations were not producing results. "The sides are not close to finding a solution," he said.
The White House noted incidents of shooting on peaceful demonstrators and disruption of the economy. "These events have caused great hardship in Venezuela," the statement said.
In Caracas, Chavez supporters planned a rally downtown to celebrate the eight-month anniversary of the president's return to power after an April 12 coup.
Opposition leaders said they, too, would return to the streets yesterday, the 12th day of a crippling general strike they began in a bid to oust Mr. Chavez and his leftist government.
In the latest sign of tension, police used tear gas to break up a clash between pro- and anti-Chavez groups late Thursday. There were no reports of serious injuries in the scuffle.
Citing economic and political turmoil, Chavez opponents began the general strike Dec. 2, demanding a nonbinding referendum on his presidency, which ends in 2007. Mr. Chavez has refused, and the opposition now says it will end the strike only if he calls general elections.
The strike has crippled Venezuela's oil industry, the world's fifth-largest, which supplies 13 percent of U.S. imports. Ali Rodriguez, president of the state-owned oil monopoly, said Venezuela might even have to import gasoline.
Intent on breaking the strike, Mr. Chavez fired four dissident executives of the oil company. He fired the same executives and three others in April, sparking a general strike that led to a two-day coup.

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