CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's Supreme Court ordered the federal government to transfer control of the Caracas police force Wednesday from President Hugo Chavez and give it back to Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, a leading Chavez opponent.
The decision, announced on national television by a Supreme Court justice, came as opposition protesters choked the capital by blocking roads on the 17th day of a strike aimed at forcing Chavez to resign or agree to early elections. The general strike has cut Venezuela's oil output by almost 93 percent.
A setback for Chavez, the ruling was an indication the Supreme Court was willing to resist moves by Chavez to increase its powers. Chavez's government had once relied on the court as a rubber-stamp for its policies.
At a rally late Wednesday, Chavez called on his followers to be ready to back him, and reviled striking oil workers as traitors.
"We must always be alert, ready to defend our revolution," Chavez told thousands of supporters at an indoor arena. He did not address the court decision.
Chavez ordered the military to take control of police stations in Caracas on Nov. 16. Chavez charged that Pena had failed to resolve a six-week labor dispute and said officers had routinely repressed pro-government demonstrations.
Police Chief Henry Vivas refused to resign, and many officers in the 9,000-strong department refused to recognize Chavez's hand-picked chief, Gonzalo Sanchez Delgado, a retired sergeant.
Pena and Vivas filed a lawsuit on Nov. 25, challenging Sanchez's appointment. They say crime has increased since the military takeover because police patrols have dropped. Vivas has ordered many officers to stay in their precincts to avoid clashes with the army and national guard.
The Supreme Court ordered Sanchez to hand over a police precinct that serves as the department's communications center. It also ordered the transfer of the department from the military to the mayor within a 15-day period.
"This restores normality," Pena said. "This ruling restores the authority of the mayor's office."
There was limited reaction from the government. Alcides Rondon, vice minister of public security, welcomed the decision, saying at a news conference that the government had ordered the military to take over the police stations to stop conflict within the police department.
The takeover was one reason Venezuela's opposition launched the general strike Dec. 2. Chavez has defied opposition calls for him to resign or stage early elections, citing Venezuela's constitution which requires him to accept the results of a vote halfway into his six-year term — August 2003.
The Venezuelan crisis — combined with concerns about the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iraq — propelled oil prices past $31 on Wednesday, the highest level in nearly three months.
Venezuela's strike has driven oil production down to about 370,000 barrels per day — compared to a normal output of 3 million barrels. Juan Fernandez, an oil executive fired by Chavez, said production had fallen even further — to 200,000 barrels per day.
Venezuela provides more than 10 percent of America's oil imports, but the White House said Wednesday there was no immediate need to release crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
However, the crisis has stirred international concern
Secretary of State Colin Powell, meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, said the United States and the European Union are worried that the crisis may turn violent, and urged a constitutional solution.
They also supported mediation efforts by the Organization of American States, though no breakthroughs in those talks appeared imminent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chavez over the phone that he hoped the Venezuelan leader could overcome the crisis. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov offered Moscow's help in mediating talks.
Brazilian President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — a leftist, like Chavez — ordered his special adviser to Caracas to see whether Brazil could help.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's private hospitals and clinics announced Wednesday they would suspend all but emergency services for an hour per day to support the strike.
Along an eight-lane highway connecting Caracas to other major cities along the Caribbean coast, demonstrators whiled away their time by playing soccer. Only emergency vehicles, foreign diplomats and journalists were allowed to pass roadblocks of parked cars and debris.
"In this kind of situation, everyone loses," motorist David Bendahan complained. "We've had corrupt government for decades in Venezuela. Who says these types will govern any better?"
Demonstrators vowed to keep up the pressure until Chavez, a former army paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup in 1992, resigns.
"We hate the government," snapped Juan Antonio Marquez, an insurance agent who lost his job when his foreign employer left Venezuela — which he blames on government mismanagement of the economy. "This is the worst government Venezuela has ever had."