CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuela's embattled President Hugo Chavez on Saturday dismissed U.S. calls for early elections to end the crisis over his rule in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.
Chavez, faced with a protracted opposition strike that has crippled the nation's vital oil industry, said in an interview broadcast on Saturday by local television that an early vote would be unconstitutional.
"I think they haven't properly evaluated Venezuelan affairs. They are confused. We will have to send them a copy of the constitution," the president told "CNN en Espanol."
The White House, raising international pressure on the populist former paratrooper, on Friday said early elections were the only viable solution to Venezuela's political turmoil. The South American nation supplies about one-sixth of U.S. oil imports.
Luis Yanes, a supporter of President Hugo Chavez, dances during a rally in support of Chavez outside of Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 13, 2002. Beating drums and blowing whistles, supporters of Chavez surrounded the government palace Friday, drawing accusations from the opposition that they were forming a human shield to protect their embattled leader. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and survived a military coup in April, has repeatedly said the constitution only allows for a binding referendum on his mandate in August 2003. He accuses his foes of trying to topple his government by destroying the oil sector with a strike.
"There are no early elections planned here. ... I don't think that the United States government is suggesting to the world that Venezuela must break with its constitution just to satisfy the pretensions of coup mongers," the president said.
But opposition leaders, a loose alliance of political parties, unions and business leaders who blame Chavez for the nation's troubles, insist he resign and call immediate elections.
"Either the president resigns to facilitate a solution or we fix a date that can't be beyond the start of next year for presidential elections," said Alejandro Armas, an opposition negotiator in talks with the government chaired by Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria.
BATTLE OF WILLS OVER OIL SECTOR
Since April, when rebel officers briefly ousted Chavez in a chaotic coup, international mediators have struggled to bring the two sides to the table to reach an electoral solution to their long-running conflict.
The opposition strike, which began on Dec. 2 and is now in its 13th day, has brought the oil industry to a standstill and sent Venezuelans rushing to stock up on food and gasoline. Banks are partly closed and many other businesses remain shuttered.
With striking oil tankers moored offshore and refineries disrupted, the shutdown has become a battle of wills over the oil sector.
The nation's oil output, which accounts for about half of the government's revenues, is at less than a third of normal.
The president insists that the shutdown has been a failure and blames dissident oil executives at the state oil firm PDVSA for trying to destabilize the nation.
"There is no strike in Venezuela. There is an oil industry conspiracy. ... The country is working," he said during the CNN interview.
The president has moved to break the strike using troops to secure gasoline distribution and bringing in replacement workers to cover striking harbor pilots, dock hands and oil workers. He said on Friday he was prepared to bring in foreign oil technicians.
Chavez said one oil vessel had been dispatched with exports bound for the United States. Shippers said on Friday that the vessel, the Josefa Camejo, loaded with 550,000 barrels of oil, had been chartered for the United States. But they raised concerns over whether its cargo had been properly certified.
Leaders of the anti-government shutdown have dismissed the president's claims he can restart the battered industry, saying it would be impossible to replace all of the strikers among the 40,000 employees of the state oil firm.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd