- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 25, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuelans struggled to get cash and gasoline yesterday as a general strike tightened its grip on this oil-rich nation's economy, but opposition leaders vowed to continue the boycott until President Hugo Chavez steps down.
The 23-day boycott has stopped Venezuela's oil exports, costing the state oil monopoly $1.3 billion so far and pushing world oil prices above $31 a barrel. Service stations closed because of lack of gasoline supply.
The government fired 90 striking oil managers yesterday, said boycott leader Juan Fernandez.
More lines formed outside banks in support of the strike. Several banks were daubed with graffiti reading, "I want my money."
"It if weren't for the strike, it would be different. The banks would be open, and people would be able to buy what they want," said Liuba Molina, a mother of three who wanted to buy presents.
"Then I would have money to buy dolls for my daughters."
Nearby, thousands packed downtown streets on shopping sprees. Upscale malls and stores in wealthier eastern Caracas, where Mr. Chavez's opposition is based, remained shuttered.
The head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation said the fight against Mr. Chavez will continue.
"We will be celebrating next December 24th," Carlos Ortega said. "We are very optimistic that Venezuela will soon be free of this nightmare."
Dozens of Chavez supporters defied the strike yesterday with a rowdy Christmas celebration outside the Miraflores presidential palace. Several men dressed as Santa Claus and activists wearing Che Guevara shirts handed out candy to children, who sang carols and shook maracas.
Many people greeted each other with shouts of "Feliz Chavidad" a take on "Feliz Navidad," or "Merry Christmas."
"Nobody can steal our Christmas," said Dario Vivas, a leader of Mr. Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement political party.
Venezuelan oil production was down to 200,000 barrels a day compared with 3 million barrels before the strike. Venezuela is the No. 4 oil supplier to the United States.
Ali Rodriguez, president of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), said the stoppage has cost the state company more than $1.3 billion.The wholesale price of crude oil closed at $31.97 a barrel yesterday on the New York Mercantile Exchange, an increase of 22 cents a barrel.

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