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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Venezuela's Strike Worsens as Chavez Warns Schools

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez vowed he will not be driven from office by a six-week strike, and threatened to fire or jail teachers joining the work stoppage.

Meanwhile, police used tear gas to prevent Chavez supporters and opponents from clashing in the city of Maracay, the military's nerve center 70 kilometers from Caracas.

Chavez supporters had been blocking the route of an opposition march in the city Saturday. Police began firing tear gas after Chavez's opponents, calling for the president's resignation and fresh elections, changed their route and continued the march.

Police also formed a blockade in Venezuela's Caribbean island of Margarita to separate pro- and anti-Chavez marchers.

The strike has paralyzed the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, causing fuel shortages, costing Venezuela $70 million a day and depriving the government of desperately needed income.

Chavez, who on Friday warned businesses hoarding food that he might send troops to seize basic foodstuffs, told thousands of supporters he would also not allow schools to stay closed.

Accusing strike organizers of closing public and private schools, leaving millions of students without classes, Chavez warned that teachers and school directors joining the strike will be fired or even jailed.

Carlos Fernandez, head of the country's leading business chamber, said many schools closed because of low attendance. He insisted most parents were not sending their children to school in support of the strike.

Leaders of the Democratic Coordinator opposition movement promised to expand the strike to drive Chavez from office if he acts against private businessmen. But Chavez's supporters rallied in Caracas' La Vega neighborhood, one of the capital city's poorest areas, to support his efforts to end food and fuel shortages caused by the strike.

Venezuela's opposition launched the strike Dec. 2 to pressure Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, to resign and call elections if he loses a nonbinding referendum on his rule.

The country's $100 billion economy shrank an estimated 8 percent in 2002, largely due to political instability. Inflation has surpassed 30 percent while unemployment reached 17 percent.

In Washington, the White House has held talks with members of the Organization of American States on ways to end the strike. OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria is mediating negotiations between Venezuela's political rivals.

Carlos Ortega, president of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, the nation's largest trade union, and opposition leader Zambrano prepared to travel to the United States to meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. State Department representatives.