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 Monday, 23 December, 2002, 17:45 GMT
Venezuelan strikers face ultimatum
Striker confronts national guards on Maracaibo bridge in western Venezuela
Both sides appear entrenched after three weeks
Striking Venezuelan oil-workers have been warned to turn up for work on Monday or face the sack and even criminal charges.

Troops have also begun boarding oil tankers as the general strike paralysing President Hugo Chavez's state enters its fourth week.

President Hugo Chavez
Chavez is trying to resume oil exports by force
In a move to bring some relief in Christmas week, soldiers loyal to the populist leader are also distributing cornmeal, the staple of the country's Christmas meal, hayacas, and are driving road tankers to supply petrol stations.

But food supplies in those shops which are open are dwindling and many restaurants and cinemas have shut down in support of the strike in Caracas - a capital city looking darker this season without festive fairy lights.

The strikers, led by a coalition of businessmen and other groups opposed to Mr Chavez's avowed leftist policies, say their action will continue and any hardship over Christmas Week should be blamed on the government alone.

"The only one responsible here for us not having Christmas is you Mr Chavez," union boss Carlos Ortega said. "The only solution is your ouster."

'Sabotage'

The president has used his security forces to keep the country functioning during the 22-day-old strike, which centres on the all-important oil export business.

Backed by a Supreme Court ruling, he went on TV at the weekend to threaten a "purge" at the strike-bound state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), where he has already sacked four executives.

hayacas
Traditional Venezuelan dish made of cornmeal, meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves
"We have begun to recover PDVSA and we will start a cleansing in PDVSA," Mr Chavez said during his weekly television and radio show on Sunday.

"Those who don't show up for work ... will be fired," he said, insisting that the state was regaining control at the company.

Ordering the corn distribution, Mr Chavez accused the opposition of seeking to "sabotage the holiday spirit".

"They wanted to sabotage cornmeal. That was very clever of them. Without cornmeal, you can't have hayacas on Christmas," he said.

Reduced to a trickle

The national economy is reeling from the loss of oil export revenue with the price of oil now at its highest level for nearly three months.

The government is only able to maintain exports at between 5% and 10% of the usual 2.7 million barrels per day.

Reuters reports that the price of the international oil benchmark, Brent crude, jumped $1.08 to $29.42 on Monday, while US crude rose $1.13 to $31.43 - both near two-year highs.

Oil provides about 70% of Venezuela's export revenues.

Mr Chavez has confirmed that emergency measures are in place to import fuel from Brazil and Colombia.


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21 Dec 02 | Americas
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