- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Shots were fired at an opposition rally in a Caracas square yesterday, killing at least three persons and wounding 28, officials said. The violence erupted moments after opposition leaders announced that they would extend and expand a general strike aimed at unseating President Hugo Chavez.
The shootings at Plaza Francia in eastern Caracas came as diplomats worked to restart negotiations to end the strike, which has paralyzed Venezuela's oil industry and brought political tensions to a boil.
The oil shutdown raised the stakes in the opposition strike, intended to force a referendum on Mr. Chavez's presidency. Many Venezuelans accuse the populist Mr. Chavez of ruining the economy, courting communism and stirring class warfare in this deeply polarized South American nation.
The oil crisis forced the government to agree to restart talks, something it had said it wouldn't do until the opposition called off the strike, which began Monday.
The United States depends on Venezuela for more than 10 percent of its imports of crude, the raw material for heating oil and gasoline. A prolonged shutdown coupled with the threat of war in Iraq could drive U.S. energy prices sharply higher.
"We can work around it for a couple of days. But if it goes on any longer than that, it could have a major impact on prices," said Phil Flynn, an analyst at Alaron Trading in Chicago.
Government negotiator Jorge Valero arrived late yesterday at a Caracas hotel for discussions being mediated by Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States. Mr. Valero said he was there for only "informal talks to discuss going back to the table."
Opposition leader Manuel Cova called the government's return a sign of desperation. "The government is returning to the table because it has no other solution," he said.
Shipping agents said oil exports had stopped from Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil producer and a top supplier to the United States. Captains anchored tankers offshore, tugs stopped guiding ships through Venezuela's oil-rich Lake Maracaibo and port crews stopped loading oil and natural gas.
Several refineries were shutting down in a process that takes several days. Because it no longer could fill orders, Venezuela's state oil monopoly freed buyers and sellers from fulfilling their contracts.
The export shutdown meant workers were not able to pump as many as 500,000 barrels of crude from oil fields as scheduled, Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said.
Venezuela's opposition wants Mr. Chavez to call a non-binding referendum Feb. 2 on his presidency, hoping a poor showing would increase pressure on him to resign.
Mr. Chavez cites Venezuela's constitution, which says a binding vote on his presidency can be held halfway into his six-year term, or in August.
Chavez supporters attacked a central Venezuela newspaper yesterday, increasing fears that more political violence was in store. Two employees were hospitalized with gunshot wounds, Tulio Capriles, vice president of El Siglo newspaper, said in Maracay.
The U.S. Embassy denounced the "criminal aggression," and Mr. Gaviria called it "an assault on freedom of expression."

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