- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

MIAMI, March 28 (UPI) — Juan Fernandez, a leader of the opposition in Venezuela, is meeting with other opposition figures and Cuban Americans in Miami on the future of the movement — currently in disarray.

Fernandez is pushing for a referendum that he hopes would oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in August.

He was one of the leaders of the strike that paralyzed the South American country's economy earlier this year. The strike is over and the opposition is scattered, but Fernandez said at a news conference in Miami they haven't given up.

"We are calling for a referendum vote," Fernandez said. "The problem with the strike is we don't have a rational person in charge of the country.

"If you see thousands of people are on the street clamoring for a solution what you expect is the head of that could try would do something to alleviate the problem," Fernandez said. "Instead, Mr. Chavez did nothing and said, 'I don't care.'"

Fernandez, 47, Carlos Ortega and Carlos Fernandez led the strike that shut down nearly all of Venezuela's production. Venezuela has the largest deposits of crude oil outside the Middle East, and is one of the United States' major suppliers.

Juan Fernandez left his country after a judge struck down an arrest warrant accusing him of damaging the country's fuel supply.

Carlos Fernandez has been under house arrest, and Ortega has been granted political asylum in Costa Rica.

Juan Fernandez said he would remain in Miami for a few days.

"I know the government is appealing the case and I'm afraid," he said.

Before his arrival in Miami he addressed the Council of Americas in New York, and visited the White House and met the undersecretary of state for the western hemisphere and officials from the Department of Energy.

Throughout the week's trip, he has urged support for the recall referendum.

"We need the international community, especially the United States to … ensure we have elections and they are held with transparency," Fernandez said.

He insists the opposition movement has not lost credibility with the Venezuelan people, although many were damaged financially by the strike.

The said the group headed by the Democratic Coordinator is deeply split, the product of frequent infighting. But he said changes are being considered.

"I don't know if we will have the coordinator as the franchise for the opposition," he said. "What we will have is a strong opposition first, in order to achieve the referendum."

Chavez, a former paratrooper who took part in an unsuccessful coup in 1992, was re-elected primarily on his support from Venezuela's poor. Key support from parts of the middle class has eroded, but he still has the support of the country's poor.


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