- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela
Venezuela's Supreme Court ordered the federal government to transfer control of the Caracas police force yesterday from President Hugo Chavez and give it back to Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, a leading Chavez opponent.
The decision, announced on national television by a Supreme Court justice, came as opposition protesters choked the capital by blocking roads on the 17th day of a strike aimed at forcing Mr. Chavez to resign or agree to early elections. The general strike has cut Venezuela's oil output by almost 90 percent.
The Venezuelan crisis combined with concerns about the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iraq propelled oil prices past $31 yesterday, the highest level in nearly three months.
Venezuela's strike has driven oil production down to 370,000 barrels per day compared with a normal output of 3 million barrels. Storage facilities are close to overflowing and most oil tankers remain moored in ports, their crews having joined the nationwide strike.
Mr. Chavez ordered the military to take control of police stations in Caracas on Nov. 16, seizing power from Mr. Pena. Mr. Chavez charged that Mr. Pena failed to resolve a six-week labor dispute and said officers routinely repressed pro-government demonstrations.
Police Chief Henry Vivas refused to resign, and many officers in the 9,000-strong department refused to recognize Mr. Chavez's handpicked chief, Gonzalo Sanchez Delgado, a retired sergeant.
Mr. Pena, Mr. Chavez's former chief of staff before the two had a falling out, and Chief Vivas filed a lawsuit Nov. 2 challenging Mr. Sanchez's appointment. They say crime has increased since the military takeover because police patrols have dropped. Chief Vivas has ordered many officers to stay in their precincts to avoid clashes with the army and national guard.
The Supreme Court ordered Mr. Sanchez to hand over a police precinct that serves as the department's communications center. It also ordered city and national authorities to arrange for the transfer of the department from the military to the mayor within a 15-day period.
"This restores normality," Mr. Pena said. "This ruling restores the authority of the Mayor's Office."
There was no immediate reaction from Mr. Chavez's government, which once relied on the court as a rubber stamp for its policies. However, the court has ruled against the president several times more recently.
Mr. Chavez has defied opposition calls for him to resign or set early elections, citing Venezuela's constitution which requires him to accept the results of a vote halfway into his six-year term August 2003.
Venezuela provides more than 10 percent of America's oil imports, but the White House said yesterday there was no immediate need to release crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
However, the crisis has stirred international concern.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, said the United States and the European Union are worried that the crisis may turn violent, and urged a constitutional solution.
They also supported mediation efforts by the Organization of American States, though no breakthroughs in those talks appeared imminent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Mr. Chavez over the phone that he hoped the Venezuelan leader could overcome the crisis. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov offered Moscow's help in mediating talks.
Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva a leftist, like Mr. Chavez ordered his special adviser to Caracas to see whether Brazil could help.
Meanwhile, an eight-lane highway that connects Caracas to other major cities along the Caribbean coast became a soccer field as demonstrators whiled away time while tying up traffic. Only emergency vehicles, foreign diplomats and journalists were allowed to pass roadblocks of parked cars and debris.
"In this kind of situation, everyone loses," motorist David Bendahan complained. Demonstrators, some waving flags and anti-Chavez banners, set off bottle rockets and firecrackers.
"We've had corrupt government for decades in Venezuela. Who says these types will govern any better?" Mr. Bendahan asked.
Demonstrators vowed to keep up the pressure until Mr. Chavez, a former army paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, resigns.
"We hate the government," snapped Juan Antonio Marquez, an insurance agent who lost his job when his foreign employer left Venezuela which he blames on government mismanagement of the economy. "This is the worst government Venezuela has ever had."

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