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Neither Side Backing Down in Venezuela Standoff

With cash scarce and gas stations running empty, Venezuelans headed into Christmas struggling with a general strike by workers demanding the ouster of President Hugo Chavez. A virtual embargo on oil exports kept international oil prices high.

Christmas Eve was Day 23 of the stoppage, and both sides vowed not to give in.

"We are very optimistic that Venezuela will soon be free of this nightmare," said Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation.

Ortega urged residents to ring in Christmas at midnight Tuesday by banging pots and pans to protest Chavez.

Dario Vivas, a leader of Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement political party, warned: "Nobody can steal our Christmas."

Several people dressed as Santa Claus and activists wearing Che Guevara shirts handed out candy to children at a Christmas party outside the presidential palace.

Venezuelan oil production was down to 200,000 barrels a day -- compared to 3 million a day before the strike. Venezuela is a major oil supplier to the United States and the fifth-biggest exporter to the world.

U.S. average retail prices of gasoline and diesel each leapt by nearly 4 cents last week, the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration reported. Crude prices rose 12 percent to two-year highs of $30 a barrel.

Venezuela provided 15 percent of U.S. oil imports in October, the EIA said.

Chavez's government struggled to resume oil shipments, activate refineries and get gasoline to service stations nationwide closed by the strike. The strike has cost Venezuela's oil monopoly more than $1.3 billion.

"Amid enormous difficulties, we are resolving the problem," insisted Ali Rodriguez, president of the state owned oil monopoly and a former secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Total December exports were only 2 million barrels, but Rodriguez said PDVSA's operations should be back to normal in the first half of January, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

But PDVSA strikers say it will be impossible for Chavez to fire and replace as many as 30,000 people who are striking at the company. Ninety managers were fired Tuesday, said dissident manager Juan Fernandez.

The giant Paraguana refinery complex is closed because there's no room for more oil. Venezuela has 10 million barrels in storage and can't ship it, Rodriguez said.

National Guard troops seized the regional offices Tuesday of the Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. monopoly in the western oil town of Maracaibo. Hundreds of strikers thwarted police efforts to arrest the regional operations chief, Luis Matteus, said attorney Jose Alcala.

Venezuela's opposition was staging yet another demonstration in Caracas. The government responded with the party outside the palace, where many greeted each other with shouts of "Feliz Chavidad" -- a take on "Feliz Navidad," or Merry Christmas.

Nearby, tens of thousands packed downtown streets on a last-minute shopping spree. Upscale malls and stores in wealthier eastern Caracas, where Chavez's opposition is based, remained shuttered.

More lines formed outside banks supporting the strike. Several banks were daubed with graffiti reading, "I want my money!"

"It if weren't for the strike, it would be different. The banks would be open and people would be able to buy what they want," said Liuba Molina, a mother of three. "Then I would have money to buy dolls for my daughters."

A grenade exploded outside the offices of strike co-leader Fedecamaras, Venezuela's biggest business chamber. No one was hurt. In London, Amnesty International urged Venezuelan leaders to negotiate and avoid a potential civil war.

The Organization of American States was set to resume its mediation efforts on Thursday.

Venezuela's opposition called the strike Dec. 2 to demand Chavez accept a nonbinding referendum on his presidency in February. Chavez refused, saying Venezuela's constitution allows a possible recall vote halfway into his six-year presidency, or next August. The opposition now wants Chavez to quit or call early presidential elections.