Respite for Chavez as Venezuela resumes oil exports to US


Venezuelan president Mr Hugo Chavez announced the resumption of oil exports to the US yesterday, marking a significant victory in his attempts to break a three-week general strike which brought his embattled administration to the brink of collapse.

"They got it wrong again," said Mr Chavez, speaking on his weekly radio show which was broadcast yesterday from a functioning oil distribution depot. "They wanted to stop the country to justify a coup but the people and the army united to defeat their plans." In a strong statement on outside influence over the oil strike, Mr Chavez accused "transnational interests" of seeking to profit from the oil strike.

Venezuela's largest oil customer, the US, has repeatedly criticised President Chavez and last week backed the opposition's unconstitutional demand for early elections as the only possible way to end the crippling strike.

Venezuela's Supreme Court, which has ruled against government in recent months, provided Mr Chavez with a surprise endorsement last Friday, backing his claim that the oil strike was an attack on the national interest and could be reversed by force. The army has since taken control of oil installations while loyal workers have restarted machinery.

In his three-hour radio address, President Chavez never once mentioned the issue of early elections, a clear sign that the belligerence of the opposition has hardened government resolve to make no concessions while the strike lasts.

The nation's banks reopened yesterday, confirming the gradual shift toward the normalisation of commerce even though a determined opposition continued the strike. Cinemas and shopping malls in Caracas remained closed and traffic on the capital's roads was at a trickle.

The business and media-led opposition declared a Christmas truce but pledged to follow it with a major rally with the declared intention of reaching the presidential palace, repeating the manoeuvre which ended with a short-lived coup in April.

In sharp contrast to the past two weeks of intense protests, Venezuelans took to the streets this weekend to queue at petrol stations and register their names with electoral authorities, as both sides prepare for some form of referendum in the new year.

In his public address, President Chavez also appealed to the upper classes who have led the heave against him. "I am not an enemy of the upper classes", said Mr Chavez.

Venezuela's upper classes are far too dissatisfied with Mr Chavez to consider reconciliation.

While citizen frustration at the general strike was aimed mainly at President Chavez during the first three weeks of the strike, the tide appeared to have turned in recent days as the lack of success in shifting Mr Chavez had worn out support for the destabilising, economic gesture.

"The opposition is trying to steal Christmas and sabotage the festive spirit", announced Mr Chavez, who wished his citizens a prosperous and peaceful new year, a dream unlikely to come true.