Protests take toll on U.S. oil source
By PHIL GUNSON and DAVID ADAMS
CARACAS, Venezuela -- A 4-day-old general strike against Venezuela's left-wing president, Hugo Chavez, spread Thursday to the massive state oil company, dramatically raising the stakes in the country's political crisis.
Throughout the day troops in riot gear patrolled the streets of the capital as sporadic protests by pro- and anti-Chavez demonstrators threatened to erupt into political violence.
The strike took a dramatic turn late Wednesday when the captains of several state-owned oil tankers joined the protest, dropping their anchors and refusing to deliver their cargoes or to reload. One of the ships was boarded by the Venezuelan navy Thursday afternoon after the government vowed to use military force to keep the oil industry running.
In a nationwide broadcast, Chavez accused striking state oil workers of trying to force a military coup by throwing their weight behind the industrial action.
Opposition leaders called the strike in an effort to pressure the government to call early elections. Chavez has so far refused to budge, saying the opposition must wait until August to hold a constitutionally mandated referendum on his presidency.
But the action by the oil tanker captains has caught the country by surprise and could turn the tables on the government. Oil is the lifeblood of the Venezuelan economy, accounting for 75 percent of the country's exports and half the government's revenues. While Venezuela's state-run oil giant, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA, has overseas reserves that could last several days, a lengthy work stoppage could seriously affect its clients, including the United States -- the biggest single buyer of Venezuelan oil.
The Bush administration was silent about the situation Thursday, although officials were said to be watching developments closely. Venezuela supplies 13 percent of U.S. oil imports.
Crude oil and refined products futures at the New York Mercantile Exchange rose Thursday, partly because of events in Venezuela. The price of oil for January delivery rose 58 cents to $27.29 a barrel.
The strike had virtually halted the loading of oil tankers, said Jorge Kamkoff, a state oil company vice president. Exports stopped because 23 tankers were unable to load cargo, according to oil industry officials.
Throughout the day, Venezuelans watched the scene evolving offshore.
Few revolutions have been led by merchant navy officers. But when Capt. Daniel Alfaro of the oil tanker Pilin Leon dropped anchor at the entrance to Lake Maracaibo, in western Venezuela, Wednesday, he became an instant hero to the Venezuelan opposition.
Accompanied by his crew, the tanker captain said he was joining the general strike in protest against Chavez's leftist leadership. "Under that worn-out, even diabolical slogan of "revolution,' " their communique declared, Chavez had divided Venezuela, "and left (the country) poorer, more crime-ridden and in total anarchy."
The strike, which began Monday, had several times appeared close to fizzling out. It was revived Tuesday by the actions of the national guard, which broke up a small, peaceful demonstration of oil managers and their families with tear gas and plastic bullets.
By Wednesday, Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States -- who has been attempting to broker a peaceful, electoral solution -- was briefing journalists that the strike would be called off that day. Instead, opposition leaders declared it would be extended into Thursday.
It was at that point that the captain of the tanker Pilin Leon -- carrying a cargo of 260,000 barrels of gasoline -- declared himself in civil disobedience, citing an article of the Venezuelan constitution.
Overnight, two more tankers joined the protest, anchoring nearby within sight of the shoreline, where hundreds of supporters began to gather. Protesters on tugboats circled the Pilin Leon -- named after a former Miss World -- blowing whistles to support the crew.
Until then the oil sector had been largely unaffected by the strike action, unlike a previous work stoppage earlier this year that nearly led to the president's ouster.
Chavez, in his address, accused Alfaro of "piracy" and warned of military action if the crew did not return to normal duties. Chavez said the oil tanker captains had assaulted the "heart of the country" by shutting down oil shipments. "It's as if the doctor who's supposed to be looking after your heart suddenly starts trying to stop it," he said.
Chavez has accused the strike organizers of trying to provoke a repeat of an April coup that briefly removed him from office. "There is a plan under way to destabilize the constitutional government," he said.
Despite reports that the navy had retaken control of the ship, it remained at anchor Thursday evening. "They can seize the ships," said Nelson Maldonado, chairman of the shipowners' association and a former sea captain, "but there is not the remotest chance that they can operate them."
Maldonado added: "All the ships in the merchant navy support (Alfaro's) position, which is the position of the Venezuelan people." Merchant officers and shipowners have been badly affected, he said, by what he called the "economic madness" of the Chavez government.
Opponents complain Chavez has politicized the merchant marine academy, echoing longstanding opposition charges that the president is hell-bent on turning the country into a Cuban-style dictatorship.
As the day wore on, there were reports of more vessels joining the strike. Refineries, including the world's biggest -- Amuay-Cardon, with almost a million-barrel-a-day capacity -- have been hit to varying degrees by the strike, and both domestic fuel supplies and oil exports are beginning to be affected.
The government admits that Amuay-Cardon has been operating below capacity. Officials attribute this to "accidents" in three compression plants that supply the refinery with gas. On Wednesday, said Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez, "oil and gas production was normal -- even slightly above normal."
Thursday afternoon, however, white-collar workers at Amuay-Cardon said the refinery complex was "paralyzed" and would remain that way until there was an electoral solution to the crisis. Reportedly, however, refining was not completely shut down.
Against the threat of violence on the streets and a deteriorating economic and political situation, Gaviria met with ambassadors from the OAS and European Union nations. Both groups pronounced themselves fully behind his efforts to produce an electoral solution to the crisis. Late Thursday, in a minor breakthrough, the government agreed to return to the negotiating table.
For their part, opposition leaders appear determined to continue the protest, angered by recent government measures to militarize the streets of the capital, including placing the city's metropolitan police force under military control.
"Now there's no going back," said Carlos Bardasano, president of Venevision, the country's largest media corporation and an ardent Chavez opponent. "The strike is snowballing and will continue until there's a clear electoral solution, or Chavez resigns."
-- Phil Gunson is a Times correspondent based in Caracas. David Adams is the Times' Latin America Correspondent.
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