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Friday, 6 December, 2002, 15:31 GMT
Strikes threaten to cripple Venezuela
Anti-Chavez protesters, blocked from reaching the main offices of Petroleos de Venezuela
Anti-Chavez protesters have paralysed the oil industry
Anti-government protests in Venezuela have brought the country's massive oil industry to a virtual halt.

President Hugo Chavez has ordered the military to secure refineries and tankers in an effort to maintain the flow of oil.

Venezuela facts
Population of 23.5 million, up to 85% live in poverty
World's fifth largest oil exporter and key Opec player
Former coup leader Hugo Chavez elected president 1998 on anti-corruption platform
Chavez briefly toppled by coup in April 2002 but back in power within 48 hours
But as protesters announced the strike would continue into Friday - its fifth day - oil officials admitted they would be unable to fulfil contracts.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and oil is the mainstay of its economy, bringing in 80% of the country's revenues.

Opposition groups accuse Mr Chavez of economic mismanagement and authoritarian rule, and the strike is intended to force him to hold a referendum on his presidency.

Despite a lacklustre start to the strike, correspondents say it is now having a huge impact on what was historically one of the most stable democracies in Latin America.

Its oil industry was hit after captains of ships carrying oil cargoes dropped anchor and refused to continue to ports. Venezuela's largest refinery was said to be "virtually paralysed" by the walk-out.

With Venezuela providing an eighth of the United States' daily oil imports, the dispute has caused oil prices to rise sharply - up more than 50 cents on Thursday alone.

The Organization of American States has now stepped in to attempt to resolve the crisis.

Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, who was mediating between the government and opposition groups before talks broke down, said he would try to get both sides back to the negotiating table.

'Act of piracy'

In the past few days, opponents and supporters of Mr Chavez have held mass rallies, many of which have taken place outside the headquarters of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA.

Mr Chavez marked a new, tougher line on Thursday by sending in troops to guard oil installations.

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Click above to see Venezuela's oil export terminals
Naval boats also surrounded the Pilin Leon tanker and its cargo of 280,000 barrels of oil, after its crew dropped anchor in Lake Maracaibo and joined the strike in what Mr Chavez called "an act of piracy".

Other tankers have also halted their journeys, but it is unclear if the navy will attempt to force them into port or simply monitor the situation, correspondents say.

In a televised address, Mr Chavez said the strikers were threatening "the heart of the country" by targeting the oil sector.

"It's as if the doctor who's supposed to be looking after your heart suddenly starts trying to stop it," he said.

Divided loyalties

President Chavez attracts huge popularity among some Venezuelans, but equally vehement hatred among others.

"Chavez is the answer and the key to Venezuela's future," Federico Olivares told BBC News Online.

But Fernando Trigos said: "This is the most corrupt government Venezuela has had in 100 years. Let us hope we get rid of it."

Pro-Chavez protesters outside Petroleos de Venezuela
Chavez supporters have ringed the head offices of the oil company
While manual labourers still tend to support Mr Chavez, he has many opponents in business and white-collar jobs.

In April a similar strike sparked street clashes between pro-Chavez demonstrators and the president's opponents, in which at least 19 people were killed.

The protests led to a short-lived coup in which Mr Chavez was ousted for about 48 hours by rebel military officers, before being reinstated by forces loyal to him.

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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jim Fish
"There's little sign of public anger abating"
Eduardo Gomarra, Florida International University
"There are two principal actors with a significant role yet to play, the OAS and the United States"
Robert Laughlin, Oil broker
"Oil is the lifeline of their economy"

Key stories

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See also:

04 Dec 02 | Americas
Venezuela strike hits oil shipments
03 Dec 02 | Media reports
Venezuela press joins strike
02 Dec 02 | Media reports
Chavez savaged by press
29 Nov 02 | Americas
Court rejects vote on Chavez rule
22 Nov 02 | Americas
Venezuela heads towards fresh strike
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