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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 02:40 GMT
General strike paralyses Caracas
President Chavez (centre) with farmers
President Chavez lashed out at the protesters
By the BBC's Adam Easton in Caracas

Business leaders said Venezuela's first general strike in more than 40 years was an extraordinary success.

Millions of Venezuelans stayed at home as shops and businesses shut up for the day.

A handful of cowardly and immoral oligarchs are not going to throw Venezuela into chaos

President Hugo Chavez
Venezuela's largest business association, Fedecamaras, who called the 12-hour stoppage, said 95% of businesses joined the action.

The normally busy streets of the capital, Caracas, were almost traffic and pedestrian free.

Although the underground system, the Metro, was running, hardly anybody was using it.

Up to 10,000 police and members of the National Guard were drafted into the capital to ensure public safety, although the strike passed off peacefully.

Domestic flights were suspended, as were many school classes, despite a warning from the Government that striking teachers could be punished.

Many medical clinics offered emergency services only.

Pot banging

All over the country, people lent out of their windows to bang pots and pans to demonstrate their support for the strike.

A policeman guards the entrance to a bank
Police were deployed to keep essential services running
When F-16 fighter planes flew over Caracas in celebration of National Airforce Day, their jet engines were almost drowned out by the sound of the pot-banging all over the city.

Fedecamaras president Pedro Carmona called the strike "an overwhelming success which marks an historic landmark in Venezuela's history".

The group called the strike saying the private sector was not consulted over 49 new laws vital to the economic health of the oil-rich nation.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez passed the laws under special decree powers.

Both business leaders and unions say the laws are hostile to private investment and want the more controversial laws modified.

Particularly unpopular is a new land law that gives the Government the power to expropriate large estates and agricultural land deemed to be unproductive.

Farm workers will have first refusal on any redistributed land and squatters will be legally entitled to remain on disputed estates.

Chavez unmoved

Modification of the laws appears unlikely however, as Mr Chavez toughened his stance.

He called on thousands of his supporters from across the country to "take" Caracas and show their support for him.

President Hugo Chavez
A defiant President Chavez vowed to speed up the pace of the reforms

Several thousand mainly poor Venezuelans, who make up 80% of the population, gathered in Caracas to take over one of the city's main plazas.

They waved banners that said "Free Land, Free Men" and "The Land Law is Social Justice".

During an impassioned speech, Mr Chavez, a former paratrooper, dressed in army fatigues and trademark red beret, told the crowd that he "would never go to the negotiating table".

He branded the work stoppage "a strike of the rich", adding, "if the oligarchy wants to stand up, it will need to take a lot of Viagra".

One of his supporters at the rally, bookkeeper Emilio Montano, said: "The people have taken to the streets to support the president.

"Here is the force of the people. The people, the president and the laws will continue to go on to make a better future."

The BBC's Adam Easton
"The strike was an extraordinary success"
See also:

10 Dec 01 | Americas
Strike closes Venezuelan cities
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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