Sunday, December 29, 2002

NYTimes --Front Page -- Trickle of Oil Starts Flowing in Venezuela

Nearly a month into Venezuela's devastating national strike, all systems were back up and running close to normal this week at the refinery here that supplies gasoline to the eastern half of this country. Night shift workers were bursting with the pride of war heroes.

"We have made a situation that seemed impossible, possible," said Edgar Ortiz, 46, the leader of a union representing gas truck drivers in the Lake Maracaibo region. "The crisis has not ended. But the government is finding solutions."

The refinery here at balmy Puerto La Cruz has become a showcase of the government's comeback. Almost all high-level executives at the plant joined the strike. But officials said fewer than 20 percent of the operators, mechanics and technicians walked off the job.

Mr. Chávez has agreed to negotiate with the business and labor representatives who lead the opposition. But sources close to the talks said that it had become clear that both sides intended to fight to the political death.

After a meeting with Mr. Chávez last week, the American ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, said the risk of violence was rising daily. Meanwhile, the night crew at Puerto La Cruz downed espresso and tried to make light of the tension. The maintenance chief, with 32 years on the job, joked that he was one of the "inexperienced workers" whom foes of Mr. Chávez called a threat to the company's security. Other workers faked Cuban accents to poke fun at charges by opponents that Mr. Chávez had allowed Communist workers to infiltrate oil installations. Then they talked about about their colleagues who had joined the strike.

"To me, this is a political fight," said Willians Arevalo, operations manager at Puerto La Cruz. "I have participated in many strikes, to demand better pay or better conditions. But I don't think I should use my job to try to force out the president."

VOA News - Massive Street Demonstrations Planned in Venezuela

Venezuela's capital, Caracas, is bracing for a series of anti-government demonstrations Sunday, on the 28th day of a crippling general strike that has caused severe fuel shortages in the oil-rich nation.

Opposition leaders have called for nine marches in Caracas, with protesters eventually coming together for what is billed as a "victory" rally.

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