Friday, January 3, 2003

Chavez: Oil industry recovering

Venezuela's output could be normal soon, he says

By Harold Olmos
The Associated Press

BRASILIA, Brazil - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Thursday that his country's oil industry, crippled by a monthlong general strike, is recovering and will reach its pre-strike capacity in 45 days. Domestic opponents said the claim was false.

Mr. Chavez made the comments to reporters in Brazil, where he had come to attend the inauguration of the new president despite the turmoil of the strike led by the opposition aiming to remove Mr. Chavez from power.

Mr. Chavez met with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was sworn in as Brazil's president Wednesday, and asked him to send experts from Brazil's state-owned oil company to replace some of the 40,000 Venezuelan state oil company workers who have walked off the job.

After a breakfast with Mr. Silva, Mr. Chavez told reporters that the Brazilian president said he would consider the request and discuss it with the new head of Brazil's oil company, Petrobras.

Mr. Chavez has fired dozens of striking managers from the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., and sent troops to guard installations across the country. He insists that replacement workers are bringing refineries and oil wells back on line.

After a meeting that stretched until 4 a.m. in a Brasilia hotel with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Mr. Chavez said Venezuela is now producing 800,000 barrels a day, up from the 200,000 barrels at the country's lowest level of production.

"We are at 800,000, and we are going to recover our full capacity of 3 million barrels a day," Mr. Chavez said. It will take between a month and 45 days to reach full capacity, he said.

In Venezuela, opposition leaders disputed Mr. Chavez's claim and said most of the industry's 40,000 workers remain off the job. Strike leaders insist the government will not be able to restart operations without them.

Also, opposition estimates of current oil output were at odds with government claims. There was no way to independently reconcile the figures.

Venezuela's opposition Democratic Coordinator - a coalition of opposition parties, business associations and labor unions - insisted output was only 190,000 barrels per day and that natural gas production was down by 80 percent.

The organization acknowledged that about 40 million barrels of gasoline stored in Venezuela's giant Paraguana refinery complex could supply the countries for 20 days.

Yet, the Democratic Coordinator said in a statement Thursday that the lack of additional storage capacity at Paraguana would make restarting operations impossible.

"Gasoline distribution seems to get worse by the day," it said.

The strike, which began Dec. 2, has forced motorists to line up at service stations for hours. Store shelves were increasingly bare, especially of drinks such as milk, bottled water and beer.

The oil industry represents 30 percent of Venezuela's $100 billion gross domestic product and 70 percent of exports. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a major provider to the United States. The strike has helped push international oil prices above $30 per barrel.

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