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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Strike Hamstrings Venezuelan Oil

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, fighting back against an opposition strike that has choked off vital oil exports, announced on Saturday a shake-up in state oil firm PDVSA, firing striking tanker captains and replacing executives.

Condemning what he called the "coup-plotting, bloodthirsty, irrational" opposition, Chavez told cheering supporters he would not allow PDVSA operations to be halted by the six-day-old strike in the world's fifth-biggest oil exporter.

His opponents launched the strike last Monday as part of a drive to pressure the leftist leader, who survived a coup in April, to hold an early referendum on his rule.

The strikers, backed by Venezuela's upper and middle classes, call Chavez a dictator and accuse him of trying to impose Cuban-style communism. Chavez says the constitution rules out a referendum before August.

Chavez dismissed the strike as a failure and rejected opposition charges he was to blame for the fatal shootings of three anti-government protesters on Friday. The shootings in Caracas, which also injured 21, enraged opposition supporters, who held a silent march to mourn the victims on Saturday.

Addressing a huge crowd outside the presidential palace, Chavez dismissed his foes as "saboteurs and conspirators" and accused them of trying to overthrow him by destroying the vital oil industry, which he called the "life of the nation."

"The time has come to fight the big oil battle in Venezuela," Chavez said. Supporters chanted "Chavez, Chavez," and "Get tough, get tough."

He said striking oil tanker captains and PDVSA staff, whose walkout had disrupted oil-well production, tanker loadings and refinery operations, were being replaced. Chavez said the PDVSA board of directors, many of whom had offered to resign, would be restructured. He also ordered the military to step up protection of oil sites.

Dissident PDVSA executives said the country had been forced to cut back 50 percent of its oil production because of the strike. They said the rest would be shut down in three days.

Acknowledging the damage to the economy, Chavez described the situation in the state oil company as critical.

As the strike hit the petroleum sector, world oil markets shuddered last week at Venezuela's sudden oil drought.

Oil provides 80 percent of exports and 50 percent of government revenues in a country already in steep recession.