- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela Supporters of President Hugo Chavez returned to the streets for another round of demonstrations yesterday, a day after two persons were killed in clashes with police and the president threatened to implement martial law.
Mr. Chavez's opponents, meanwhile, proposed raising money for a referendum on his rule.
Chavez supporters staged the march demanding an end to an opposition strike that has paralyzed the country's oil industry and a show of support for the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA.
"This is a march to defend what belongs to all Venezuelans," said Guillermo Garcia Ponce, one of Mr. Chavez's closest political allies. "We aren't going to allow conspirators to destroy PDVSA as part of a plan to overthrow a popularly elected government."
Labor and business leaders began the strike Dec. 2 to demand Mr. Chavez's resignation and fresh elections. Dissident executives at the PDVSA joined the work stoppage.
The strike has paralyzed oil production in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, a top supplier to the United States. It has helped push international oil prices to more than $30 per barrel while oil workers have defied a back-to-work order by the Supreme Court.
There were no reports of violence during the protests yesterday.
On Friday, gunfire erupted during an opposition march on the headquarters of the armed forces. Two persons were killed and at least 78 were injured, five of them from gunfire. Both sides claimed the dead as their own.
Mr. Chavez said he would consider imposing martial law to quell the 5-week-old strike and halt escalating political violence.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, said the only way they could hold the nonbinding referendum on Mr. Chavez's rule was if they paid for it themselves.
Leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition movement called on Venezuelans to donate $1.80 to $3.50 to hold the referendum Feb. 2 as planned.
"We have to take matters into our own hands because there are no signs suggesting the government is going to cooperate," opposition leader Americo Martin said.
The opposition presented more than 150,000 signatures to election authorities Nov. 6 to call for the vote, but the national election commission says parliament still hasn't authorized the $22 million needed to hold the vote.
Government adversaries believe Mr. Chavez, whose popularity has fallen from 60 percent in 2000 to roughly 30 percent, will be so embarrassed by the outcome of the vote that he will step down.
Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, argues that the referendum is unconstitutional.
The Organization of American States is mediating talks between allies and adversaries of Mr. Chavez. Late Friday, OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria said the two sides disagree on the validity of the referendum but that it's possible to compromise.
Since the strike began, Mr. Chavez has been forced to import food and fuel. PDVSA President Ali Rodriguez told the state news agency Venpres on Friday that the government has purchased 250,000 barrels of gasoline from a U.S. firm and 600,000 barrels from Russia.
Venezuela has also received gasoline shipments from Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago.

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