- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Venezuelans formed milelong lines at closed gas stations yesterday, hoping promised fuel supplies would arrive as a nationwide strike aimed at toppling the president forced the world's fifth-largest oil exporter to import gasoline.

Motorists blocked an avenue in the western part of the capital to demand gasoline as police watched over the long lines at service stations to keep order.

Elsewhere in Caracas, thousands of supporters of President Hugo Chavez rallied outside the Supreme Court, urging justices to ban a proposed referendum on his presidency. Opposition supporters canceled a protest of their own at the building one intended to support merchant marine sailors arrested for joining the strike.

The nearly month-old strike has paralyzed Venezuela's petroleum industry, which typically supplies the United States with 14 percent of its oil. Exports have declined from 3 million barrels a day to a trickle, depriving Venezuela of $50 million a day in revenue.

Along with the fuel crunch, food supplies were running low. In deals that were once unthinkable here, Brazil announced Thursday that it would ship 520,000 barrels of gasoline to Venezuela, while the Dominican Republic sent food as partial payment for oil it has received in the past.

Venezuela is also negotiating with neighboring Colombia for milk and meat, Agriculture Minister Efren Andrade said.

The Brazilian shipment of oil was not due until today. But the government promised that some domestically produced gas would be delivered yesterday to stations around the country, bringing out lines of people seeking cooking fuel and gasoline.

Opposition leaders met with Brazil's ambassador Thursday to urge Brazil not to interfere by helping Mr. Chavez break the oil strike.

The strikers, who include oil industry executives and state governors, are angry at Mr. Chavez's economic policies and political reforms they believe endanger democracy.

The two sides have been meeting for weeks without progress. Ali Rodriguez, president of the state-owned oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela, said yesterday that he was finalizing a proposal to restructure the company through layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.

On Thursday, the government rejected opposition demands that striking oil workers be allowed to keep their jobs as part of any settlement, government negotiator Nicolas Maduro said.

Venezuela has lost more than $1.3 billion in oil-export revenue, and it has 10 million barrels of crude waiting for shipment abroad, Mr. Rodriguez was quoted as saying by the state news agency Venpres.

Venezuelans, who once took pride in their country's cheap gasoline and natural gas, are facing shortages. On Thursday, about 300 people blocked a Caracas highway to demand propane cooking gas.

"We are desperate. We've been using charcoal and kerosene to cook for two weeks now," said Faustino Gonzalez, 59, a taxi driver.

Fears that the strike would continue well into 2003, coupled with fears of a war in Iraq, have helped push oil prices to more that $32 a barrel, the highest in two years.

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