CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela received its first foreign shipment of gasoline Saturday, but the 525,000 barrels from Brazil were a drop in the bucket as the oil-rich nation suffers through shortages because of a strike against President Hugo Chavez.
The 27-day strike -- led by Venezuela's largest labor union, business chamber, and workers at the state-owned oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. -- has cut oil exports from 3 million barrels a day to 160,000, virtually evaporating domestic gasoline supplies.
The strike began Dec. 2 to demand Chavez call a nonbinding referendum on his rule.
Mile-long lines formed for gasoline Saturday. Some motorists protested by blocking the Pan-American Highway outside Caracas.
Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, is seeking food and fuel abroad. The Brazilian tanker Amazonian Explorer delivered 525,000 barrels of gasoline, barely more than a normal day's demand. Trinidad and Tobago is sending 400,000 barrels of gasoline.
The Dominican Republic sent rice and Colombia sent 180,000 tons of food.
Chavez claimed Friday the gas shortage would end "in a few days, or weeks" -- a claim ridiculed by PDVSA executives.
Opposition leaders accuse Chavez of sending the country into its worst recession in years and trying to impose a Cuban-style revolution. Chavez insists he wants to distribute Venezuela's oil wealth to the majority poor.
Chavez opponents called Saturday for a "victory" demonstration in the nation's capital.
Antonio Ledezma of the Democratic Coordinator political movement called for nine marches throughout Caracas on Sunday to demand that Chavez resign and call elections.
Demonstrators will converge in what's being billed as "the great victory rally," Ledezma said. Strike leaders have led numerous marches and vowed to continue their civil disobedience.
Each side accused the other Saturday of stonewalling after weeks of talks mediated by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria.
"I can't say we've made any significant advances," Gaviria said as talks were suspended Friday until after the holidays. They resume Jan. 2.
Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton said Saturday a hasty agreement could spark more political violence in this tension-filled South American country of 24 million people.
Moving headlong into an agreement may not be acceptable to all parties given the diversity of Venezuela's opposition, which includes dissident military officers, traditional political parties, trade unions and some local media.
"He isn't interested in the talks or an electoral solution," said Alejandro Armas, one of six opposition negotiators. "The only electoral solution acceptable for the government is a (binding) referendum in August. That's why they are stalling."
Chavez has told adversaries he will ignore the results of a nonbinding referendum slated for Feb. 2. Likewise, radical "Chavistas," as the president's backers are called, may not agree to a deal acceptable to moderate government supporters.
"A hurried decision could be damaging. The best decisions are those that take time," said Chaderton. "We want to avoid more deaths. Hurrying things could bring about more deaths."
Government negotiators have balked at opposition demands that striking PDVSA workers be allowed to return to their jobs as part of an electoral agreement.
Chavez, elected in 2000, repeatedly has said the only constitutional means of removing him from office is a binding plebiscite halfway through his term, or August.
U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro met with Chavez on Friday and told reporters he was concerned that the political crisis and fuel shortages could trigger violence. He called for "both sides to reach a sensible solution, a democratic solution, an electoral solution."
Several governments, including the United States, have urged their citizens to avoid traveling to Venezuela.
Also, the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League said Saturday it could cancel winter play if the strike is not resolved by early January.