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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 20:02 GMT 21:02 UK
Venezuelans hit by oil crisis
Employees of Petroleos de Venezula (PDVSA) protest at square of an executive offices in Caracas
The strike in Venezuela frightens people on the street
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By Mike Ceaser
Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela
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After 40 minutes of waiting in a line of cars outside a Mobil petrol station in Caracas, Felipe Da Silva was upset - but he was more worried about the days to come.

A Venezuelan fuels his car in Caracas
Thousands of Venezuelans rushed to petrol stations to refuel
The 25-year-old construction worker was one of thousands of Venezuelans who rushed to petrol stations to fill up after managers of the state petroleum company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) went out on strike on 4 April.

"I drive for five hours each day - how am I supposed to do that without gasoline?" Mr Da Silva asked, leaning out the window of his beat up yellow pickup truck.

"And if I stop, so does the rest of the country. Just imagine the disaster."

Strike

That morning, managers of the state petroleum company had finally gone on strike after a long-brewing drama in which they protested President Hugo Chavez's 26 February nomination of a new board of directors for the company.

The strikers say the new directors are inexperienced and did not earn their jobs through the established merit-based promotion system, but were appointed only because they were Chavez allies.

The critics suggest the Chavez administration, which has been sullied by recent scandals, desires to milk PDVSA's profits.

State control

Mr Chavez says the company is inefficient and that it should contribute more to the nation and his 'Bolivarian revolution' for the poor.

During Chavez's three-year-old administration he has reversed the previous trend toward privatisation of PDVSA in favour of greater state control.

The strikers, PDVSA executives and managers, blockaded the nation's two largest refineries to put them out of operation.

Chanting "not one step backward", they demanded that the previous board of directors be restored.

Key industry

Petroleum is the foundation of Venezuela's economy, accounting for almost one quarter of the gross national product and nearly 80% of exports.

The country is the world's fourth largest petroleum exporter.

A prolonged strike would inconvenience Venezuelan motorists and throw out of work many of the 40,000 people employed in the petroleum industry at a time when the nation's unemployment rate is already at about 15%.

And a strike here would add more pressure to international petroleum markets, already strained by the fighting between Israel and Palestinians.

Nevertheless, since the protests began, the Chavez administration has taken a firm line, asserting its privilege to name PDVSA's directors and establish the company's policies.

"[PDVSA] has to be aligned with the nation's general plan of development," said vice minister of Hydrocarbons, Bernardo Alvarez.

Not concerned

Many Venezuelans did not share Mr Da Silva's concerns.

Amanday Sira Quintero, wiping clean the shiny stainless steel cart on which she prepares fried pancakes wrapped around meat or cheese, said the strike didn't worry her, despite the fact that she relies on gas canisters for cooking.

She has two gas canisters in reserve, she pointed out, and each one lasts a whole month.

"I don't think this will last two months," she said.

Political trust

Ms Quintero was also reassured by the vice president's speech.

Like many Venezuelans who support President Chavez's efforts, she believes that the strike is part of an effort by businesses and opposition politicians to force out Mr Chavez.

"It looks to me like a form of destabilizing the country," she said.

In fact, the nation's political temperature rose that same evening, as pro-Chavez demonstrators blocked the entrances to parliament, yelling in defence of the interior minister.

The parliamentary session was ended early.

Meanwhile, the petroleum company began large scale firings of workers who supported the strike.

Wider impact

Despite Ms Quintero's extra supply of cooking gas, if the strike drags on it could affect her in many other ways.

The El Universal newspaper reported Friday that industrial gas would be exhausted within 48 hours, gasoline supplies would run out in seven to ten days and that the capital's electricity service could be affected.

Most of Venezuela's electricity is generated by hydroelectric plants, but a drought has already forced the government to reduce voltage and to rely more on thermoelectricity.

Agreement hopes

Many Venezuelans, however, predicted that the government would give in and the strike would end quickly.

Alexander Gonzalez, a taxi driver, was in his 30-year-old Mercedes Benz waiting for petrol in the same queue as Mr Da Silva.

"I think they'll reach an agreement," he said.

"Because if PDVSA stops for even three days the electricity will shut off."

Army involvement

But Mr Chavez has vowed that in case of a strike he would replace the PDVSA workers with military personnel.

However, that idea has received widespread criticism because of the great technical knowledge required to run petroleum operations.

"Militarising the installations is... simply impossible," said Elias Santana, spokesman for the citizens organization 'We want to choose'.

Even the minister of defence rejected that option.

Nevertheless, the administration has not relented.

The night the strike began, vice president Dioslado Cabello repeatedly interrupted television and radio broadcasts for an almost ten-minute speech complaining about "media manipulation" in favour of the strikers and asserting that the government would not negotiate.

"We are going to use whatever means may be necessary to re-establish normality," he said.

"There are no problems."

But an employee at the petrol station where Mr Da Silva was waiting predicted the station's tanks would run out the next day, and Mr Da Silva opined that there were in fact problems.

"This is going to bring an economic disaster," he said.

"The president has to give in."

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Business
Venezuela oil dispute escalates
21 Mar 02 | Americas
Clashes erupt on Venezuela streets
27 Feb 02 | Americas
Venezuela divided over Chavez
29 Mar 01 | Business
Venezuela outlaws oil strike
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