- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuela's Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt to an oil-industry strike while it considers the legality of the work stoppage, which entered its 18th day yesterday.
A general strike by organized labor and business to oust President Hugo Chavez has stopped oil exports from Venezuela a key supplier to the United States and sent global prices above $30 a barrel.
The Supreme Court said it was considering a motion filed by an executive with the state-owned oil monopoly asking the justices to declare the strike illegal. The court said it will hear arguments on the motion within four days. In the meantime, it ordered striking oil employees and executives to resume work.
Felix Rodriguez, director of production at Petroleos de Venezuela SA, filed the motion Tuesday, arguing that the work stoppage which has drastically cut oil exports from the world's fifth-largest oil producer threatened national security.
There was no immediate reaction from dissident executives at the oil company, which employs 40,000 people. But a spokesman for striking workers, Alfredo Gomez, told Dow Jones Newswires they will ignore the court order.
"It's not safe for us to return to work and the constitution allows us to protest," Mr. Gomez said. Leaders of the general strike have cited a clause in the Venezuelan Constitution allowing citizens not to recognize a government they consider undemocratic.
Oil production was down to 370,000 barrels per day compared with 3 million barrels before the strike. Some oil executives fired by Mr. Chavez claim production is just 200,000 barrels per day.
Venezuelan and foreign tankers are idle, refineries are closed or operating at minimum levels and crews and dockworkers are refusing to handle oil and non-oil cargos.
The government is still trying to unload the tanker Pilin Leon named after a former Miss World which anchored off the western city of Maracaibo in protest. The ship carries 280,000 barrels of gasoline, roughly a day's supply for the nation.
Mr. Chavez, who vows to stay in office, has branded striking oil workers as traitors sabotaging Venezuela's oil-based economy and issued a decree allowing the temporary seizure of private vehicles to ensure deliveries of food and gas.
Soldiers guarded gas stations to keep them open, but 70 percent of gasoline stations in the Caracas area were empty, said Angelina Martino, president of the Association of Gasoline Retailers.
Hours-long lines formed at service stations.
Venezuela's private hospitals and clinics announced they would suspend all but emergency services for an hour a day to support the strike.
Opposition leaders called the strike Dec. 2 to demand that Mr. Chavez call a nonbinding referendum on his rule. They then increased their demand to early elections the Venezuelan Constitution allows only a recall vote halfway into Mr. Chavez's six-year term, which is next August.

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