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Venezuelan Workers Rally in 12 Cities

January 10, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Opponents of President Hugo Chavez took to the streets Friday as a bank strike prompted authorities to suspend dollar auctions for a second day in a row after Venezuela’s currency fell.

Bank workers and other opposition sympathizers were rallying in Caracas and 11 other cities on Friday, a day after violence broke out at similar protests amid a nationwide strike that has shut thousands of businesses and brought Venezuela’s vital oil industry _ a top U.S. supplier and once the world’s fifth-largest exporter _ to a virtual halt.

The Bush administration was talking with other nations in the Americas on ways to end the strike, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday.

``We remain deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela,″ Fleischer said. Asked about a possible U.S. role in a breakthrough, Fleischer said, ``An electoral solution is the direction the United States sees.″

Hundreds gathered in Caracas to march on the Melia hotel, where Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, who is mediating between the two sides, is staying.

Fleischer said Gaviria has been quietly discussing options with other OAS states, including formation of a ``Friends of Venezuela″ group ``to help the Venezuelans find a solution.″

The Central Bank suspended dollar auctions for a second day Friday after the currency, the bolivar, dropped to a record low of 1,593 to the dollar Thursday _ 5 percent weaker than Wednesday and down 12 percent since the start of the year.

Analysts speculated Chavez’s government may have to devalue the bolivar to balance its budget. Most government income is in dollars and a weaker bolivar would increase its domestic spending power.

Meanwhile, unknown assailants tossed a grenade at the residence of Algerian Ambassador Mohamed Khelladi on Thursday night, the embassy said Friday. Nobody was injured and no arrests were made.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel denounced the attack in an appearance on state television and called it an act of terrorism.

The motive for the attack wasn’t known. Algeria has offered to send technicians to help jump-start Venezuela’s oil industry.

Rangel said the government reinforced security at embassies and diplomatic residences after the attack and a series of telephoned bomb threats at the Australian, Canadian, German, Libyan and Uruguayan embassies.

On Thursday, government supporters attacked anti-Chavez marches in Caracas and outside oil facilities around the country as political violence increased in this crisis-stricken South American country of 24 million.

``Chavistas,″ as the president’s backers are called, attacked a rally outside a refinery in Cardon, 270 miles east of Caracas, wounding a 40-year-old worker and a 28-year-old demonstrator, said Luis Arends, a civil defense worker.

In Caracas, gunfire erupted at an opposition rally. No one was hurt, and the rally resumed. Nobody was arrested.

Chavez supporters armed with machetes and sticks also prevented a demonstration at an oil facility in central Carabobo state, Globovision television reported. A minor clash occurred at a plant in Barinas state.

Chavez opponents claim the president’s fiery rhetoric incites violent reactions from his most radical backers.

Chavez, a leftist former paratroop commander who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, blames the opposition-aligned news media, which he accuses of campaigning for his overthrow.

Bloodshed last year spurred a coup and Chavez’s brief ouster. Loyalists in the military returned him to power on April 14.

Spokesmen at three of Venezuela’s largest banks _ Banco de Venezuela, Banco Provincial and Banesco _ said 80 percent of the country’s nearly 60,000 bank employees stayed home Thursday.

The bank strike forced many supermarkets to close because shoppers were unable to pay with credit cards or debit cards, said Nelson Da Gama, president of the National Association of Supermarkets.

A nonbinding referendum on Chavez’s rule is scheduled for Feb. 2. Chavez insists the constitution only requires him to respect a possible recall referendum in August, the midpoint of his six-year term.

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