- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela, Jan. 17 (UPI) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned Friday that he was not prepared to negotiate with "fascists" and "terrorists" as the oil-rich country's general strike entered its 47th day.

Speaking during the annual state of the nation address to the National Assembly, Chavez described the strike, which has created serious shortages in Venezuela, as a "horrific display of limitless cruelty." Opposition members of the National Assembly boycotted the speech.

The organizers of the general strike hope to force the leftist president to call fresh elections or to submit to a referendum on his government. They accuse Chavez of authoritarianism and of economic incompetence.

The president, however, accuses his opponents of trying to force the military to intervene and overthrow him. In particular, he accuses the opposition of seeking to repeat the events of April 2002 when disaffected army officers and business leader launched a short-lived coup against his government.

The strike "hides fascist and terrorist tendencies that are attacking the Republic and all our state institutions," Chavez warned Friday.

The president's uncompromising tone during the speech contradicted earlier reports that Chavez was prepared to make compromises to the opposition in order to secure an early end to the strike.

The opposition and their allies in business association Fedecamaras and the CTV labor union have also expressed their determination not to give way. They say they are prepared to continue the strike until Chavez agrees to their demands, despite the disastrous impact of the stoppage on the Venezuelan economy.

Negotiations between the two sides have dragged on for months under the sponsorship of the Organization of American States, but neither side has proved willing to compromise and no breakthrough seems likely in the near future.

International efforts to promote a peaceful solution are nonetheless continuing. The Brazilian government announced the creation of a "Friends of Venezuela" group that includes the United States this week, while the United Nations has also stepped up its efforts to broker a solution.

Neither the government nor the opposition are, however, prepared to make concessions since both believe victory is within their grasp.

The opposition is convinced Chavez cannot continue to preside over a soon-to-be ruined country, while senior government figures remain confident that they will defeat the strike.

Indeed, in recent days, officials have stepped up their campaign to restart the crucial oil and gas sector. Income from oil exports accounts for around half of the Venezuelan government's income.

The government has sacked large numbers of striking white-collar workers at state-owned energy producer PDVSA and has installed loyal employees and volunteers in many PDVSA complexes in an attempt to restart production.

Many smaller shops and businesses have remained open throughout the strike, but almost all larger companies and foreign-owned franchises have kept their doors closed, while banks are only open for three hours in the morning.

The price of many essential goods has risen as the shortages increase, severely affecting the poorer sections of Venezuelan society, which are increasingly reliant on the subsidized "popular markets" operated by the government.

The director of the Domingo Savio children's home in eastern Caracas, Ivan Melendez, told United Press International that the strike had made looking after the 23 boys in his care almost impossible.

A kilo of flour that cost 50 cents before the strike now costs around $1.50, well beyond the home's tiny budget. Meanwhile, the center's gas tank hasn't been refilled since the strike began, so hot meals are becoming a rarity.

The difficulty of feeding the boys forced Melendez to turn to local families late last week. He asked them to look after and feed a child until the general strike finally ends and the home can reopen properly.

Like most of Venezuela's cash-strapped voluntary sector, the center largely depends on donations from major companies, but almost all are observing the strike. And to make matters worse, the budget the home receives from the state has also fallen victim to the government's current cash-flow crisis.

The network of children's homes run by the Catholic Salesian order is currently unable to accept any new street children, Melendez reports, even though Venezuela's worsening economic crisis means there are more and more children in need.

"I try and cook simple things like rice most days," the home's cook, Yulimar Perez, says. "But we are mainly eating salads. We can't buy the things we really need, we can only buy the things we can find."

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