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Friday, Dec. 06, 2002 at 6:34 AM
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A nationwide strike escalated into angry street protests as Venezuelans riled by economic and political turmoil tried to force Hugo Chavez from the presidency of this polarized nation. Chavez said the strike won't drive him out.
Anti-Chavez demonstrators massed around an air force base and at the headquarters of the national oil monopoly Tuesday. The national guard used tear gas and rubber bullets to drive them back from the strategic points.
Strikers vowed to continue their protests Wednesday against Chavez, whose leftist policies they blame for tough times. The economy has contracted 7 percent this year and half the work force doesn't have a formal job.
Chavez made his first public statement since the strike began Monday, denying opposition claims that he plans to declare a state of emergency and describing the protests as a desperate move to oust him by a "conspiracy" of business and union leaders bent on "destabilization and violence."
At a brief news conference Tuesday night, Chavez called the strike a failure and said it wouldn't shut down Venezuela's key oil industry -- the world's fifth-largest -- or drive him from power.
"This strike ... has a hidden face," Chavez said. "It's a new attempt at a coup."
A similar strike deposed Chavez in April after the oil industry shut down and 19 people were killed at an April 11 opposition march. Dissident military officers took power on April 12, but Chavez was restored to power two days later after thousands of Chavez supporters rebelled.
"This is a reenactment of the events of April 11," said Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello. "The same protagonists, the same organizers, the same situation in the news media. Now all that's missing is the support of the armed forces -- which they absolutely don't have."
But opposition leaders said they would continue their demonstrations until Chavez calls elections or steps down.
"For me, and for many Venezuelans, he isn't the president any more," said Tomas Arrivillaga, 26, waving a red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flag at a street protest. "I don't give this regime much more time."
The strike itself appeared to weaken Tuesday, with hundreds more stores, banks, food shops and cafes open for business. Many events _ including Venezuela's treasured winter league baseball All-Star Game -- were postponed.
But the protests became increasingly brazen as the day wore on. Strikers overturned trucks to block one of Caracas' main highways and formed human chains across streets to slow traffic to a crawl.
National guard troops used clouds of tear gas and volleys of plastic buckshot to drive protesters away from the headquarters of Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., Venezuela's state-owned oil monopoly, and from a key highway looping around an air force base.
At least three journalists and one protester were injured by the plastic bullets.
"Everyone get out in the streets!" dissident Col. Antonio Ortega bellowed to a crowd of flag-waving strikers. "Feel proud, because you are fighting for a very just cause."
It was unclear how much it would take to draw a response from Chavez supporters, including street radicals who have attacked opposition marches in the past. Their protests brought the president back to power after his April ouster.
In western Venezuela, a base for the nation's oil industry, police broke up scattered protests and the navy chased away strikers in small boats trying to block a navigation canal in Lake Maracaibo used by tankers exporting 1 million barrels of crude each day.
Many oil managers were participating in the strike, but production at rigs and refineries appeared normal. Boat service to take workers to the rigs was suspended Monday but was normal Tuesday.
The strike began after the Supreme Court voided a February. 2 nonbinding referendum on Chavez's rule, saying the five-member national elections council needed at least four votes for approval. The council said Tuesday it had voted 4-1 to prepare the referendum, but Chavez insists the constitution allows a binding vote only halfway into his presidency, in August.
Cesar Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States, appealed to both sides to sit down and negotiate elections. The government said talks could resume when the strike ended. The opposition said the strike will end when the government resumes talks.
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