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12/16/02 - TURMOIL IN VENEZUELA - 2002-12-17

A general strike has paralyzed Venezuela's oil industry -- the world's fifth largest -- and led to violence and shortages of food, drinking water, and cash.

The strike has been marked by daily street protests for and against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The strikers are protesting President Chavez's policies, which opponents charge have made millions of Venezuelans poorer and driven the country toward Communism. The opposition launched the strike to demand a non-binding referendum on President Chavez's rule, but now wants general elections soon. President Chavez has argued that the Venezuelan constitution prohibits early elections.

A shooting at one opposition rally left three people dead and twenty-eight wounded. In the words of Roger Noriega, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States, "The violence, perpetrated by armed civilians, once again claimed the lives of peaceful demonstrators. The United States calls upon Venezuelan police and judicial institutions to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation and vigorous prosecution of all of those responsible."

In Caracas, Cesar Gaviria, the Secretary General of the O-A-S, is mediating negotiations between the government and the opposition. The talks are aimed at ending the strike and allowing early elections. But Mr. Gaviria has said that serious differences remain and more violence could erupt. The U.S. calls on all sides to reject violence, act responsibly, respect constitutional processes, and work toward a peaceful, democratic, and electoral solution to the crisis.

In the words of President George W. Bush, "It is very important for President Chavez to do what he said he was going to do, to address the reasons why there was so much turmoil in the streets. And it's very important for him to embrace those institutions which are fundamental to democracy, including freedom of press, and freedom. . .for the opposition to speak out."

Now more than ever, it is essential that the Venezuelan government provide the security necessary for the people of Venezuela to exercise peacefully their fundamental freedoms.