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 Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 20:09 GMT
Venezuela leader vows to beat strike
Blocked Venezuelan exports have hit US oil stocks
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has reiterated his government's determination to defeat a month-long national strike which has slashed the country's oil output.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and the 32-day old strike has helped push oil prices to two-year highs as US stockpiles have fallen to 26-year lows.

Talks between the government and the strikers have reportedly reopened after the New Year break, against a background of some hard-pressed small business owners giving up on the strike while their larger rivals stay firm.

But both President Chavez and the alliance of business, trade unions and opposition parties who want early elections to remove him from office have issued tough public statements.

His opponents have even threatened a tax revolt, a dire prospect in a country where vital oil revenues have collapsed.

"A date with defeat"

"We're going to overcome this situation, sooner rather than later," said President Chavez, speaking in Brasilia where he was attending the inauguration of Brazil's new president Inacio Lula da Silva.

A protestor waves a flag with an anti-Chavez slogan
Strikers want to end President Chavez's rule

President Chavez said he had received promises of support from Brazil's state-run oil firm, including the loan of oil industry technicians.

Venezuela's oil output would return to pre-strike levels in 45 days, he added.

The government has used troops to regain control of some key oil installations.

Strike leaders have told their supporters to take a New Year rest before returning to the fray on Friday 3 January:

"Recharge your batteries to the maximum because on Friday...we're fighting the big battle," they said in a TV advert.

Street protests continue

President Chavez has said the strikers "have a date with defeat" and accused their leaders of plotting a coup.

Tear gas in Caracas
Protestors have been injured in fights with police

Tens of thousands of people attended a "Farewell Chavez" street party in the capital, Caracas, on New Year's Eve.

New Year's Eve protests led to street battles with police in which some demonstrators were injured.

President Chavez, who was elected to serve till 2007, has consistently rejected the opposition's demand for him to stand down or hold early elections.

He says the earliest constitutional date for a referendum would be August 2003, half way through his term of office.

President Chavez survived a coup attempt in April last year after working class voters took to the streets in his support.

Economic damage

Venezuela's economy depends heavily on oil exports, which make up 80% of all exports and account for half of government revenues.

Energy minister Rafael Ramirez has said the strike has cost Venezuela's economy $2bn so far, while some economists think it could have knocked as much as 12% off economic growth in the final quarter of 2002.

Petrol shortages brought on by the strike have forced the country to import fuel.

Brazil and Russia have supplied fuel and a further shipment is expected from Trinidad and Tobago.

  The BBC's Adam Easton
"As Venezuela heads towards financial ruin neither side is ready to back down"

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See also:

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