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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 22:52 GMT 23:52 UK
Venezuelan general strike extended
A couple walk past closed shops in Caracas
Shops closed in solidarity with the oil protest
Millions of Venezuelans have been told not to go to work on Wednesday as union leaders decided to extend a 24-hour general strike.

The country's vital oil business has been thrown into turmoil after the strike was launched on Tuesday in protest at a new board of directors for the state oil company.

A soldier guards an oil refinery
Ministers and military chiefs were sent to key oil facilities

Business leaders - who with unions devised Tuesday's all-out strike - agreed to observe the second day of stoppage.

But earlier President Hugo Chavez denied anything was out of order, asking: "What strike?" and government offices were said to be running as usual.

Foreign and local trade and shipping sources continued to report disruptions to output and exports from the world's fourth largest oil producer, caused by an escalating six-week-old labour protest by employees of the state oil company PDVSA.

With no products leaving, even by ship, you have effectively stopped the refinery

Amuay-Cardon refinery manager

The strike was called by the million-strong main union confederation, CTV, and the largest business association, Fedecamaras, to support the PDVSA managers' protest against a new board of directors seen as appointees of President Chavez.

The decision by many in the oil trade union, Fedepetrol, to join the strike threatened to paralyse an industry supplying Venezuela with 80% of its export revenue.

Global problems

The strike could also cause more nervousness in the global oil market following Iraq's decision to suspend oil exports for 30 days.

Iraq and Venezuela jointly export about 4.5 million barrels of oil per day. Venezuela alone exports nearly one million barrels of crude oil daily to the United States.

This country has not halted and will not be halted

President Hugo Chavez

Venezuela's largest oil refinery, the Amuay-Cardon complex, was virtually shut down on Tuesday.

A manager of the plant, which normally produces 960,000 barrels a day, said: "With no products leaving, even by ship, you have effectively stopped the refinery."

Other refineries appeared to have either closed down or were operating well below capacity.

Attack on Chavez

The strike is seen as a powerful attack on President Chavez, who is fighting opposition to his three-year rule from hostile labour and business leaders as well as political foes.

Analysts said the strike, coupled with the PDVSA oil dispute, clearly sapped the government's ability to guarantee smooth, day-to-day running of the nation, but Mr Chavez and his administration insisted the strike was a failure.

We can consider the strike a total success

Union leader Carlos Ortega

"This country has not halted and will not be halted," Mr Chavez said, dismissing the strike organisers as "subversives" seeking to destabilise and topple his government.

He sent senior ministers and military chiefs to key oil facilities to ensure they continued to operate.

CTV leader Carlos Ortega, whose authority has not been acknowledged by Mr Chavez, claimed 80% support for the strike.

"We can consider the strike a total success," he said.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
President Chavez is accused of authoritarianism
The action was generally peaceful but scuffles broke out in Caracas and an opposition deputy was hurt.

Riot police surrounded the National Assembly to prevent trouble.

Teachers, doctors, the Roman Catholic Church, and numerous civic groups backed the strike in defiance of government threats to sack public employees involved in the "illegal" action.

Mr Chavez's government had made efforts to avoid a repeat of a successful general strike on 10 December which led to a 20% rise in the minimum wage.

The BBC's Adam Easton
"An oil strike is potentially disastrous for Venezuela"
See also:

07 Apr 02 | Americas
Venezuela's escalating oil dispute
05 Apr 02 | Business
Venezuelans hit by oil crisis
05 Apr 02 | Business
Venezuela oil dispute escalates
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