- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Venezuela announced plans yesterday for President Hugo Chavez to travel to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan amid international efforts to end a crippling nationwide strike.
Mr. Chavez's trip on Thursday coincides with U.S. efforts to bring international pressure on him to accept early elections.
A 43-day-old strike has crippled Venezuela's economy, shut down its oil exports and caused U.S. gasoline prices to jump.
On Friday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the administration was looking for ways to support mediation efforts currently under way by Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, including through the creation of a "Friends of Venezuela" group of interested countries.
U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro said yesterday in Caracas that presidents from the region would discuss the crisis when they meet in Quito tomorrow for the swearing-in of new Ecuador President Lucio Gutierrez.
"They will hold conversations and I think that we will reach some agreement on the group of friends. This is very important," Mr. Shapiro said.
Meanwhile, there were new clashes yesterday between Chavez supporters and opponents.
At his Jan. 1 inauguration, Brazilian populist President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva proposed a "group of friends" initiative, in which outside nations would help mediate an end to the strike.
Mr. Chavez hailed the Brazilian proposal and the United States rejected it, fearing the group could be stacked with supporters of Mr. Chavez.
The U.S.-supported group would continue to be directed by Mr. Gaviria, who has been working for months to end the stalemate.
The United States is proposing a timetable for new elections and an end to the strike by opponents of Mr. Chavez.
"We have been working with people in the region, talking with people for several weeks now. There is an effort to try to energize things," said a State Department official yesterday, on the condition of anonymity.
The official said that the United States would be a part of a "Friends of Venezuela" group that might include Brazil, Mexico, Chile and maybe Spain as well as the United Nations.
"The value of a friends group is that you can demonstrate to the government and to the opposition that we are neutral," the official said.
The United States imports about 15 percent of its oil from Venezuela. Before the strike, which began Dec. 2, reduced Venezuelan oil exports to a trickle, the United States received 1.5 million barrels of Venezuelan crude a day.
Now, with possible war on Iraq looming and prices at the pump rising, the United States is hoping to help broker a resolution.
Venezuela has been in crisis since a short-lived military coup last spring. Because the United States at the time gave tacit backing to Chavez opponents, it had been reluctant to become involved.
But that has changed.
"Chavez got a real boost from his visit to Brasilia [in early January for Lula da Silva's inauguration] and came back thinking that if he just dug his heels in he would win," the State Department official said. "Both sides have been unwilling to move. There is a potential for deepening violence if the strike goes on."
This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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