Million Venezuelans March in Protest
%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:CAR115-101002; AUDIO:%)
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ About a million Venezuelans marched in the capital Thursday demanding that President Hugo Chavez call early elections or a referendum on his rule _ and threatening a general strike if he didn’t do so by next Wednesday.
Cries of ``strike! strike!″ and ``not one step back!″ rose up from the crowd. Venezuela’s biggest labor and business groups responded to the clamor immediately, announcing an Oct. 21 strike if Chavez didn’t meet Wednesday’s deadline.
Chavez, whose term ends in 2007, will respond to the threatened strike by the Venezuelan Workers Confederation and the Fedecamaras business chamber during a rally Sunday, said Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel.
``We cannot accept challenges and threats. Democracy doesn’t work that way,″ Rangel said. He noted it would take months to create a competent elections council and update voter rolls for any election.
Fedecamaras, which represents 70 percent of Venezuela’s non-oil production, and the CTV labor confederation last called a general strike in April to protest Chavez’s handling of the battered economy. That strike sparked a short-lived coup and virtually stopped oil production in Venezuela, a key oil supplier to the United States.
Carlos Ortega, head of the 1 million-member labor confederation, issued the ultimatum at the end of march. He didn’t say how long a strike might last.
Organizers and Caracas Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno estimated that 1 million people attended the demonstration _ the biggest since troops and Chavez supporters confronted a 600,000-strong opposition march on the presidential palace April 11.
Shooting that day killed 19 people and prompted a two-day military coup before loyalist troops restored Chavez to power.
The government deployed troops across Caracas Thursday as marchers packed the six-lane Avenida Libertador running through the heart of the city. National Guardsmen cordoned off the presidential palace and Congress, and most downtown stores were closed.
Just days ago, Chavez claimed he had uncovered another plot against his leftist government. Secret police raided the homes of several officers suspected of participating in the April coup.
A top military official offered his resignation Thursday, protesting the police raids and other alleged abuses against officers accused of subversion in April.
Navy Vice Adm. Alvaro Martin Fossa accused Defense Minister Jose Luis Prieto of persecuting suspect officers. He added that he himself had received anonymous threats.
``The most honorable thing to do is resign,″ said the 30-year armed forces veteran.
On Thursday, a civilian was killed in shooting between police and Chavez supporters in the central state of Guarico, said police Col. Alberto Betancourt.
Another shootout erupted in the western state of Carabobo when police dispersed Chavez supporters who used hijacked trucks to block a highway to the capital. Three civilians and one police officer were wounded, said Carabobo public security secretary Antonio Mustafd.
Citing the threat of violence, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Venezuelans ``to act with patience and moderation″ and to support international efforts to broker peace talks.
Chavez said he told Annan in a telephone call that ``everything is normal in Venezuela.″
With no serious contender emerging from Venezuela’s massive but disorganized opposition, Chavez has welcomed a possible referendum next year.
Labor and business groups believe a general strike will force Chavez to resign. But Venezuela’s largest oil union, Fedepetrol, said it won’t join a strike after the government agreed to a 35 percent wage hike.
The Organization of American States has warned the opposition against an indefinite strike that could destabilize one of the top four oil exporters to the United States. A strike would be the third against Chavez in less than a year.
Chavez foes assert that he’s incapable of managing Venezuela’s economy, which is in recession, and has driven a wedge between rich and poor. Chavez blames Venezuela’s economic and political turmoil on business and labor leaders besieging him with strikes and protests. The opposition-aligned news media, he claims, downplays his accomplishments. Thursday’s Caracas newspapers carried headlines such as ``Elections Now!″