- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) National guard troops atop armored vehicles fired tear gas at protesters yesterday as a general strike aimed at forcing President Hugo Chavez to call elections escalated into clashes in its second day.
Opposition leaders accused the government of harassment, and government officials accused strike leaders of trying to provoke a coup.
Oil executives called a rally at the headquarters of the state-owned oil monopoly after the home of a top manager was robbed early yesterday. But as crowds gathered at the protest site, which the government had declared off-limits for demonstrations, troops rolled in and dispersed them with tear gas.
With pressure rising in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a major supplier to the United States, the U.S. State Department urged the government and opposition to restart negotiations.
Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, said he hoped that peace talks he has mediated can resume after the strike. He urged both sides to refrain from violence.
In Caracas, hundreds more stores, banks, food stores and cafes opened for business and downtown's traffic jams resumed.
But police used tear gas to break up confrontations after strikers tried to force shopkeepers to close their doors at a Caracas shopping center, and broke up a rally on the shores of Lake Maracaibo.
Opposition leaders called for marches in the central city of Maracay, nerve center for Venezuela's military.
Venezuela's treasured summer league baseball All-Star Game was postponed until Dec. 14.
The opposition claimed a 75 percent success rate for the strike yesterday and 80 percent Monday, even though many businesses opened and oil production and exports weren't immediately affected. Thousands banged pots and pans to show support for the strike.
Strike organizer Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation, extended the action at least through the end of yesterday though more extensions were widely expected.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel reiterated government assertions that Monday's action didn't affect key industries and services. "Why extend for 24 hours a strike that has failed?" he asked.
The state-owned oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. insisted operations were normal. But Fedepetrol, the country's biggest federation of oil workers' unions, said 82 percent of oil workers stayed home.
Oil accounts for half of government income and a third of gross domestic product. The industry's involvement could make or break the protest.
In Caracas and Maracaibo, motorists lined up at service stations after strike leaders declared that gasoline shortages were imminent.
Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello accused the strikers of attempting a coup and said the government won't permit "another April 11."
On that day, Mr. Ortega and other opposition figures staging a similar anti-Chavez general strike called an opposition march in which 19 persons were killed, many by pro-Chavez gunmen. Dissident officers ousted Mr. Chavez on April 12 and loyalists restored him two days later when an interim government abolished the constitution.


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