- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) President Hugo Chavez yesterday threatened to jail thousands of oil workers fired for leading a two-month strike against him.
"Fired is nothing. Many of them should go to prison for sabotaging the Venezuelan economy," Mr. Chavez said of the more than 9,000 workers dismissed from state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA.
His threats came one day after more than 100,000 Chavez opponents protested in Caracas in support of the fired oil workers. The opposition held a similar protest yesterday in the state of Carabobo, 66 miles west of Caracas, and held a bicycle protest in the capital.
The nationwide strike was called Dec. 2 to demand Mr. Chavez's resignation or early elections. But its leaders business groups, labor unions, and leftist and conservative politicians agreed to end the protest last week in all areas but the crucial oil industry.
Mr. Chavez yesterday called the strike an "oil coup" aimed at unseating him by paralyzing the oil industry, which provides half of government income. He also has accused his opponents of waging an "economic coup," which he blames for Venezuela's deteriorating economy.
The strike cost Venezuela more than $4 billion, the government estimates.
Mr. Chavez says most of the oil company's 40,000 employees have returned to work. Strike leaders deny this, saying thousands refuse to return until the president rehires the 9,000 fired workers and agrees to an early vote on his rule. Another 900 oil workers were fired during the weekend, the newspaper El Universal said.
Still, the oil industry the world's fifth-largest supplier before the strike is slowly recovering. Mr. Chavez, who spoke at the El Palito refinery in western Venezuela, said production is at 1.9 million barrels a day. This compares with more than 3 million barrels a day before the strike and 200,000 at the height of the strike.
Dissident executives say production is closer to 1.3 million barrels a day, and gasoline shortages continue. Motorists wait hours outside the few stocked service stations, while many citizens have taken up cycling to save on fuel.
Several thousand Chavez foes rode bicycles around Caracas yesterday in support of the fired oil workers. Many wore red, yellow and blue the colors of Venezuela's flag.
The president also threatened to use newly imposed currency controls against his opponents. Controls were imposed last week to shore up the weak bolivar and to slow capital flight.
The bolivar was fixed at 1,600 per U.S. dollar, and a currency administration office was set up to distribute dollars.
Critics say the controls are Mr. Chavez's latest attempt to restrict freedom in Venezuela. They fear dollars will be available only to government sympathizers and not to the opposition.
Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed military coup in 1992, was elected to power in 1998 and re-elected in 2000. He promised to wipe out the corruption of previous governments and redistribute the country's vast oil wealth to the poor majority.
But after four years in power, unemployment is approaching 20 percent and inflation has soared more than 30 percent.

Peace talks organized by the Organization of American States have failed to end the bitter standoff between the government and opposition.

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