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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chavez Vows to Prosecute Oil Strikers

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Striking managers at the state oil monopoly will be fired and prosecuted, President Hugo Chavez said Sunday as he vowed to break a 21-day-old strike aimed at forcing him from office.

Participation of dissident managers of the Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, in the general strike has cut exports from the world's fifth-largest oil exporter to a trickle and dried up domestic gasoline supplies.

"We have begun to recover PDVSA and we will start a cleansing in PDVSA," Chavez said during his weekly television and radio show. "Those who didn't show up for work ... well, they will be fired."

Chavez has already sacked four dissident oil executives and seized a gasoline-laden ship whose crew had joined the strike by dropping anchor in western Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo.

A judge freed the crew of the Pilin Leon from jail Sunday but prohibited them from leaving the country. Civilian supporters chanting "Not one step back!" cheered as Captain Daniel Alfaro and his crew walked out of a courtroom in the western city of Maracaibo.

"We are united, as we have been from the start," Alfaro said, holding a Venezuelan flag.

Chavez announced that the government has exported more than 2 million barrels of oil to the United States, the largest customer for Venezuelan oil, in the last nine days. Another tanker carrying 500,000 barrels was soon to leave port, he added.

However, oil exports have been cut by about 90 percent since the strike began on Dec. 2. In an interview published Sunday in Brazil's O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, Chavez said Venezuela may import gasoline from neighboring Brazil and Colombia.

Chavez foes insist the president must go well before his term ends in 2007, accusing him of failing to revive the economy, widening class divisions and ruling autocratically. Under Chavez, Venezuela's economy shrank 6 percent in the first nine months of this year.

Chavez is not constitutionally obliged to submit to a recall referendum until halfway into his six-year term, or August 2003.

A former army paratrooper commander who led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, Chavez was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, promising to help the nation's poor. His popularity has slipped to about 30 percent, but in the shanty towns hugging the hills around Caracas it remains as high as 45 percent.

The National Elections Council has accepted a petition signed by more than 2 million people for a nonbinding vote for Feb. 2. Voters have swarmed to registration centers across the country even though Chavez has vowed to ignore the referendum's outcome.

In Washington, two U.S. senators urged U.S. President George W. Bush's administration to take a more active role in the Venezuelan crisis.

The Bush administration should do more to boost stalled efforts by the Organization of American States to "get a compromise, which probably means accelerating an election date in Venezuela," said Senator Dick Lugar, incoming chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.

The oil strike has been a crucial force behind the protest, which has been ignored by many small-business owners and taxi drivers. Downtown Caracas bustled Sunday with holiday shoppers and street vendors.

Seaports, many schools and shopping centers also have stayed closed, while hundreds of thousands of citizens have turned out for marches in Caracas to support the strike.

The president's opponents vowed the seizure of the Pilin Leon would not go far in breaking the strike. Twelve other tankers remained idle in various ports.

The crews of two other tankers have been arrested, a lawyer for the crewmembers, Gonzalo Himiob, confirmed Sunday. The crews were forced off the tankers Saturday but the vessels, moored off the western coast of Venezuela, have not yet moved.

Chavez said PDVSA president Ali Rodriguez was drawing up a list of workers to be dismissed. During an oil strike in April, Chavez dismissed seven oil company executives but the move backfired, sparking bloody opposition protests and a military coup that ousted the president for two days.

This time, though, the armed forces have stood behind the president. Soldiers seized the Pilin Leon on Friday, arrested its crew and moved it to shore.