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Sunday, 2 February, 2003, 04:13 GMT
Venezuela strike to ease
Venezuelans queue in a supermarket
Support for the strike has been starting to wane
Opposition leaders in Venezuela say they will ease the two-month-old strike against the country's president, Hugo Chavez, from Monday.

One of their spokesmen, Alejandro Armas, said this would mean that some businesses would open for restricted hours.

The national strike has reached its objectives and the protest is entering a new phase

Jesus Torrealba, opposition leader
However, the return to work will not include thousands of oil workers - the backbone of the strike - who have decided to continue their work stoppage until Mr Chavez calls elections.

The announcement came after opposition leaders met representatives of the Friends of Venezuela , a group of six countries which has been attempting to mediate in the crisis.

On Wednesday, private banks said they would resume normal operations from Monday, after repeated appeals from the public.

Return to work

Explaining what had brought about the change of tactics, Jesus Torrealba, executive secretary of the opposition co-ordinating committee said:

"The national strike has reached its objectives and the protest is entering a new phase."

Hugo Chavez
Chavez is showing no signs of budging

But experts say the strike had begun to falter as many companies, faced with bankruptcy, re-opened for business.

The National Banking Council and the Venezuelan Banking Association said they had decided by a two-thirds vote to restart normal operating hours from Monday.

Management at shopping centres, restaurants and schools were also reportedly planning to return to work on Monday.

The strikes, which began on 2 December, have forced Venezuelans to queue for cash, food and gas, and sparked angry protests in which at least seven people have been killed.

Petition plan

Having agreed to ease back on the strike, opposition leaders are now focussing their efforts on gathering signatures for a petition aimed at pressuring Mr Chavez out of power.

On Sunday opposition leaders intend to hold what they have described as the "Great Sign-up" in which the people of Venezuela will be called upon to register their support for a number of demands for the government.

A man waits for gas supplies in Venezuela
Crucially striking oil workers will not return

Chief amongst these would be a constitutional amendment which would change Mr Chavez's term of office from six years to just four.

Under the country's constitution opposition leaders would be permitted to make the request if they secured the signatures of 15% of Venezuela's registered voters - approximately 1.8 million people.

"Our idea is to get 5 million signatures," Carlos Ocariz, from the opposition party Justice First, said.

Mr Chavez has repeatedly brushed aside calls for his resignation and seems determined to not surrender the leadership.

Potential for violence

One pro-Chavez group, the Carapaica Revolutionary Group, told Reuters news agency that they would block attempts to gather the signatures.

Last year five people were wounded when members of the group opened fire on a Metropolitan Police patrol.

The plan to collect the signatures was proposed by former US President and Nobel peace prize winner Jimmy Carter.

Mr Carter has been working along with the six nation Friends of Venezuela, led by Brazil and the US, as well as diplomats from Mexico, Chile, Spain and Portugal to bring about a deal on elections.

Still of concern is the fact that the oil workers at the heart of the opposition campaign have vowed to continue.

More than 5,000 Venezuelan oil workers have been fired since they began their strike.

And oil production has almost ceased in Venezuela - the world's fifth largest oil exporting country - helping to send crude oil prices two-year highs.


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30 Jan 03 | Business
30 Jan 03 | Media reports
28 Jan 03 | Business
27 Jan 03 | Americas
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