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Monday, 10 December, 2001, 14:28 GMT
Venezuela's Chavez faces labour wrath
Protesters last Friday demanding Mr Chavez's resignation
President Chavez's popularity is falling

By Adam Easton in Caracas

Businesses across Venezuela are closed on Monday in a general strike called to protest at President Hugo Chavez's alleged authoritarian style of government.

The 12-hour stoppage is the first in the country's more than 40 years of democracy to be joined by both the country's business leaders and unions.

With Mr Chavez's popularity slipping in recent months, it is being seen as his government's biggest test since coming to power three years ago.

"Venezuela will not stop for anybody, not least the oligarchy," Mr Chavez confidently assured listeners in his weekly radio address.

Woman begging in Venezuela
Poverty in Venezuela stands at 70%
The oligarchy he was referring to is Venezuela's largest business association, Fedecamaras.

It called the strike after accusing the government of failing to consult the private sector over 49 recently-passed laws which the president says are vital for the country's economic health.

They say a land reform law and another that covers the oil sector which generates 89% of the nation's earnings are hostile to private investment.

Also controversial is a coastal law which says the state now owns all land 80 metres above the high tide mark - an area equivalent to the size of Belgium.

'Biggest confiscation'

The Fedecamaras president, Pedro Carmona, said it could mean the biggest confiscation of private property in Venezuela's modern history, and has called on Mr Chavez to modify the laws.

So far, Mr Chavez is refusing to do so, saying they represent his efforts to promote social justice in a country where more than two-thirds of the people live in poverty.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela
President Chavez accuses 'oligarchy' for economic woes
The last time business leaders and unions united in a strike, the then Venezuelan dictator, General Marcos Perez Jimenez, was forced to flee the country.

That is unlikely to happen with Mr Chavez, who remains popular with the poor.

But if the strike receives widespread backing, he may be forced to adopt a more conciliatory tone in future.

See also:

01 Dec 01 | Business
New law sparks Venezuela oil row
29 Mar 01 | Business
Venezuela outlaws oil strike
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Venezuela
31 Jul 01 | Americas
Timeline: Venezuela
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