CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's Supreme Court ordered a temporary halt Thursday to an oil industry strike that has crippled exports from the world's fifth-largest petroleum producer and strangled domestic gasoline supplies.
The court issued the order while it considers the legality of the work stoppage, which is part of an 18-day-old general strike against President Hugo Chavez. The strike has stopped oil exports from this key U.S. supplier and sent global prices above $30 a barrel.
However, it was doubtful the court could force workers back to their jobs. A spokesman for dissident executives at the state-owned oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PDVSA, said they would disobey ruling.
"We won't go to work until the government decides to hold new elections," Alfredo Gomez told The Associated Press. "I and many of my colleagues have decided that we will exercise our citizens' rights to protest against the government. ... If they want to fire me, they can fire me."
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel condemned the workers' response. "The order is very clear, categorical: go back to work," Rangel told Union Radio.
Meanwhile, National Guard troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas Thursday at anti-Chavez demonstrators in the coastal city of Barcelona, said the governor of north-central Anzoategui state, David de Lima.
At least 15 people were wounded by rubber bullets and 12, many of them women and children, suffered the effects of the tear gas, de Lima said.
Carlos Ortega, leader of Venezuela's main labor federation and a leader of the general strike, called for further protests on Friday and said the stoppage would continue until Chavez steps down.
Felix Rodriguez, the oil company's production director, had sought the court order, arguing that the work stoppage threatened national security. Venezuela is losing $40 million a day in oil export income and could be forced to tap into its $15 billion foreign reserves.
The court said it will hear arguments within four days. In the meantime, it ordered striking workers and executives to resume work immediately.
Venezuelan and foreign tankers are idle, refineries are closed or operating at minimum levels and crews and dock workers are refusing to handle oil and non-oil cargos.
Oil production was down to 370,000 barrels per day -- compared with 3 million barrels before the strike. Some oil executives fired by Chavez claim production is 200,000 barrels per day.
Chavez ordered soldiers to oil installations two weeks ago to prevent sabotage, pressure workers to return and force gasoline deliveries.
Gomez, the striking executives' spokesman, alleged that soldiers were "making people work at gunpoint" and many strikers feared for their safety if forced to return.
Gasoline shortages reached a critical stage Thursday. Most filling stations turned away motorists and officials said gasoline stocks were nearly empty.
In the western state of Tachira, authorities limited gasoline purchases to just over three gallons.
Angelina Martino, president of the Association of Gasoline Retailers, said 70 percent of gasoline stations in the Caracas area were empty.
PDVSA president Ali Rodriguez insisted the government was working to guarantee supplies for "many days."
Long lines formed at the few open stations. "I am annoyed because they [the strikers] are creating unnecessary chaos," said Claudio Cedeno, a 52-year-old truck driver.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday the United States has presented some ideas to international mediators for solving Venezuela's political crisis.
He expressed concern about "the possibility of violence and deep political unrest and social unrest" and said both sides had been "intransigent."
Chavez's government is trying to keep Venezuela's transportation and economic infrastructures going and prevent more food shortages.
The government warned it will fine businesses hoarding supplies and will temporarily seize trucks, boats or aircraft to feed people if needed. But it insisted there were no plans to declare martial law.
The government also said it was opening a "megamarket" of food and other basics this weekend in Caracas.
The strike has curbed natural gas production intended for Venezuela's steel and aluminum industries. Vandals sabotaged an electrical substation in the eastern state of Anzoategui, temporarily cutting power to a natural gas plant, the state news agency Venpres said.
Opposition leaders called the strike Dec. 2 to demand Chavez call a nonbinding referendum on his rule, which they say has devastated the economy and polarized the nation. Chavez refused.
Strike leaders now demand early elections, which Venezuela's constitution does not allow, or Chavez's resignation. The constitution says a recall vote may be held halfway into Chavez's term, or next August.
Chavez's popularity has plunged since his 1998 election and 2000 re-election. But he still enjoys some of the highest approval ratings among Latin American leaders, VenEconomy magazine reported. His base is Venezuela's poor, who comprise 80 percent of the 24 million people.
Chavez claimed victories this week with declarations of support from the military. The Organization of American States and foreign governments have urged Venezuelans to find a constitutional solution to the crisis.
There were signs of a possible settlement. A group of pro-Chavez lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment allowing for elections next year, El Nacional newspaper reported. The amendment would cut the president's term from six to four years, said pro-Chavez lawmaker Guillermo Palacios.