- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez threatened yesterday to send soldiers to seize control of food-production facilities and also fired 700 workers from the state oil monopoly, hoping to break a 40-day-old strike intended to oust him.
The Venezuelan leader, a former paratroop commander, told soldiers to be ready "to militarily seize the food production plants" that joined the strike. He asked state governors belonging to his political coalition to be ready to cooperate.
"This is an economic coup. They are trying to deny the people food, medicine and even water," Mr. Chavez told thousands of supporters in western Cojedes state. "They won't succeed."
Venezuela's opposition began a general strike Dec. 2 to demand that Mr. Chavez resign and call elections. The strike has caused food shortages.
Rafael Alfonzo, president of Venezuela's food producers chamber, blamed the shortages on the president for refusing to cede to opposition demands. He insisted food makers are producing staples but said fuel shortages have hampered deliveries.
"It's totally false that we are denying the people food," Mr. Alfonzo said. "We ask governors and soldiers to understand that the only one to blame for food shortages is the government."
The strike also has paralyzed the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, where at least 30,000 of the state company's 40,000 workers are off the job.
Earlier Mr. Chavez fired 300 of the oil workers.
He has tried to jump-start oil production. Crude output is estimated at about 400,000 barrels a day, compared with the pre-strike level of 3 million barrels. Exports, normally 2.5 million barrels a day, are at 500,000 barrels.
Yesterday's developments inflamed an already unstable situation in this South American nation. Mr, Chavez' opponents took to the streets and a bank strike prompted authorities to suspend dollar auctions for a second straight day after Venezuela's currency fell.
The president also threatened to maintain a military seizure of the independent Caracas police force even though the Supreme Court ordered the government last month to restore the department's autonomy. Troops seized the force in November.
He accuses police who report to an opposition mayor of brutally repressing his supporters during protests and allegedly killing two supporters Jan. 3.
Police say Chavez street thugs instigate the violence.
The police "will stay under [military] seizure," Mr. Chavez said, "because there are groups of assassins truly subversive groups that break the law with a police uniform and weapons. That must not be allowed."
In Washington, the Bush administration was talking with other nations in the Americas on ways to end the strike, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday.
"We remain deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela," Fleischer said. Asked about a possible U.S. role in a breakthrough, he said, "An electoral solution is the direction the United States sees."
The general strike has caused a sharp decline in Venezuelan exports to the United States, which normally average 1.5 million barrels daily. Government opponents, including the nation's largest labor union and business chamber, are demanding that Mr. Chavez resign if he loses a nonbinding Feb. 2 referendum on his rule.

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