- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Thousands of people wearing red berets marched yesterday through the Venezuelan capital to support embattled President Hugo Chavez a day after three persons were fatally shot at an opposition rally.
Demonstrations by both sides of Venezuela's political conflict had police worried of increased violence after gunmen opened fire Friday night in a plaza restaurant crowded with opposition demonstrators. In addition to the three deaths, 28 persons were wounded.
The killings caused the opposition until now seeking only a referendum on Mr. Chavez's 4-year-old government to demand his resignation. Leaders declared three days of mourning, calling for nationwide protests and the extension of a general strike that has already shut down Venezuela's giant oil industry.
Police patrols in Caracas were cut drastically a month ago when Mr. Chavez seized control of the city force.
Citing the threat of violence, the State Department yesterday urged Americans not to travel to Venezuela.
The United States depends on Venezuela for more than 10 percent of its crude oil imports. A prolonged shutdown coupled with the threat of war in Iraq could drive up U.S. energy prices.
Pro-Chavez crowds chanted "Chavez drives them crazy" referring to the opposition as they marched to the presidential palace.
"I had to come to show my rejection of the way the opposition is always blaming innocent people for the violence," said Peggly Martinez, 19, a university student. "There's no dictatorship here, and we want the world to know it."
Mr. Chavez, a former army paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup, was overwhelmingly elected in 1998 by promising to eliminate a corrupt democratic system that failed to distribute oil riches to the poor. He was re-elected to a six-year term in 2000.
Mr. Chavez appealed for calm after Friday's shooting at Plaza Francia, an opposition rallying spot since dissident military officers occupied it in October.
He denied claims that he was behind the attack, which occurred moments after the opposition said it would extend its strike. Mr. Chavez asked former President Jimmy Carter, who has tried to mediate in Venezuela, to help calm tensions.
The Organization of American States called for emergency talks between the two sides late yesterday. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell phoned OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, the mediator, to express his support for the talks, U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro said.
A stumbling point is the opposition demand that Mr. Chavez call a nonbinding referendum on his presidency. Venezuela's constitution says a binding referendum may be held halfway into his term, or next August.
Mr. Chavez said yesterday that the national elections council, which has approved a Feb. 2 referendum, must be changed "so we have someone impartial" to conduct elections. His government insists a constitutional amendment is needed to call an early referendum.
Timoteo Zambrano, an opposition negotiator, said the opposition would now demand Mr. Chavez's immediate resignation at the talks. The general strike was non-negotiable, he said.

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