Venezuelans brace for violence


Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 9:02 p.m.
CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelans braced for a tense New Year's as the 4-week-old strike against President Hugo Chavez teetered Tuesday on the edge of violence.
"We're sitting on a time bomb," said Miguel Hernandez, who waited seven hours to gas up his taxi in Caracas. "Venezuelans' patience has its limit, and if the government and opposition don't reach an agreement soon, anything can happen here."
New Year's Eve is usually a tight-knit family celebration in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil producer. But this year, leaders on both sides of the dispute are asking supporters to celebrate it as they did on Christmas: By demonstrating in the streets.
The president's opponents planned a midnight rally Tuesday celebrating "2003: The Year of Liberty" on a Caracas highway. His supporters planned a similar rally outside the headquarters of the state-owned oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.
Strike leaders said Tuesday that if Chavez doesn't bend soon to demands for a Feb. 2 referendum on his presidency, they'll lead another potentially dangerous march on the heavily defended presidential palace.
"I say, let's go," said Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation. "And if they are going to kill us, let them kill us once and for all."
Strike leaders said Tuesday that if Chavez does not bend soon to demands for a Feb. 2 referendum on his presidency, they'll lead another potentially dangerous march on the heavily defended presidential palace.
Nineteen people were killed in the opposition's last march on the palace, April 11, prompting a failed two-day coup.
The strike has choked off oil exports and produced severe gasoline shortages. Thousands of Venezuelans spent New Year's Eve in line at service stations. Soldiers marked car windshields with numbers to keep order.
Several nations, including the United States, Britain and Australia, have urged their nationals to avoid Venezuela.
Already, protests have erupted at empty service stations. Many Venezuelans predict full-scale riots if Chavez cannot begin delivering gasoline.
Since oil production began here in 1917, Venezuelans have embraced the idea that cheap and plentiful gasoline is the people's rightful share of their country's immense oil wealth.
In Venezuela, a gallon of gasoline costs 12 times less than a gallon of drinking water - gas, 26 cents a gallon; water, $3.12.
Blood flowed the last time a Venezuelan government tried to tinker with gas prices.
In February 1989, President Carlos Andres Perez raised prices for gas - from 8 cents per gallon to 16 cents. Riots erupted nationwide, and Perez sent soldiers into the streets to smash the rebellion. At least 300 people were killed. Perez lowered prices.
Many citizens also are embarrassed that a nation with the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East has been forced to import gasoline from such countries as Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago. The imports constitute a drop in the bucket when compared with normal domestic consumption of 400,000 barrels a day.
Never before - not during World War II, not during the 1970s Arab oil embargo - has Venezuela stopped exporting to its biggest customer, the United States. In the early 1990s, Venezuela increased its production to make up for shortfalls during the Persian Gulf crisis.
Through it all, Venezuelans took pride in the efficient state oil monopoly that emerged after the industry's nationalization in 1976, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.
Now 35,000 of PDVSA's 40,000 employees are striking to demand Chavez's resignation and new elections.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top