Chavez Warns Nations Not to Be Misguided
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ President Hugo Chavez warned nations endorsing early elections not to be misguided by opposition allegations that he is leading a dictatorial regime.
Chavez urged the so-called ``Group of Friends,″ a forum of six nations backing negotiations mediated by the Organization of American States, to ``understand the truth about Venezuela.″
``In Venezuela, there is a legitimate government, a democratic government,″ Chavez said during a speech to foreign diplomats. ``It’s necessary to recognize that reality.″
Opposition leaders claim Chavez, a former paratrooper who was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, is riding roughshod over the nation’s democratic institutions.
Meanwhile, a melee between opposition sympathizers and municipal police under the command of a ruling party mayor erupted outside a building in Caracas where a petition backing early elections is stored. No injuries were reported.
Dozens of opposition supporters pledged to secure the building through the night and accused police of attempting a raid.
``We are going to stay here all night to safeguard the signatures,″ said Geraldo Blyde, a member of the Justice First opposition party.
Although a two-month strike that failed to oust Chavez has ended in all sectors except the all-important oil industry, Venezuelans still must cope with gasoline shortages and an economy in shambles.
Despite increases in oil production and government expenditures of more than $500 million on fuel imports, motorists waited for hours to fill up their tanks at service stations.
``The strike is over but we are still going through a critical moment,″ said Wilmer Acevedo, 30, a tow truck driver waiting at one gas station. ``If I don’t get gasoline, I can’t work.″
Some restaurants, stores and factories were having trouble opening because of the gasoline shortage, causing serious delays in deliveries of other goods.
The government has raised oil production to more than 1 million barrels compared to pre-strike levels of 3.2 million barrels per day. Still, refineries remain largely idle.
Energy and Mines Minister Rafael Ramirez said Venezuela would import 12 million barrels of gasoline this month to make up for shortages.
``It will take a couple of months to bring refining capacity back up to a normal operating rate,″ said Ed Silliere, vice president of risk management at Energy Merchant LLC in New York. ``Part of the problem is they have fired a lot of the key people that used to run these things. You can’t replace these people that easily.″
Thousands of employees are still on strike at the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. More than 9,000 of the company’s 40,000 employees have been fired for joining the work stoppage.
The fate of the fired workers is a sticking point in negotiations between the government and opposition. Chavez vowed Friday not to rescind the firings. ``Not even if I were crazy,″ he said.
Shortages could worsen as the government implements exchange controls to protect its foreign reserves and the bolivar, which lost a quarter of its value during the strike. Dollar requests could take as long as 45 days to process under the new rules, which could delay imports. Venezuela depends on imports for 60 percent of raw materials.
The government fixed the bolivar at 1,598 bolivars per dollar. The bolivar is trading at roughly 2,500 bolivars to the dollar on the black market.