CARACAS, Venezuela – World oil markets will suffer for some time from the effects of the general strike aimed at toppling President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's top oil official said Monday.
The 4-week-old strike has shut down key sectors of the economy and created gasoline and food shortages throughout Venezuela, the world's No. 5 exporter. Oil production has plunged from 3 million barrels a day to 260,000 barrels a day.
"For some time, we will have distortions on the world oil markets due to this situation," Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez acknowledged Monday.
The strike escalated Monday as police used tear gas to separate opponents and supporters of Chavez outside the state oil monopoly's headquarters in Maracaibo, the hub of the country's oil-producing West.
Strike leader Carlos Ortega, who leads Venezuela's largest labor federation, called on all citizens Monday to stop paying their taxes.
And secret police arrested National Guard Gen. Carlos Alfonso Martinez, one of dozens who have occupied a Caracas city square for three months in rebellion against Chavez.
About 60 people protested the arrest outside the secret police headquarters. Officers tried to disperse the protesters with tear gas. An ensuing rock fight between protesters and civilian Chavez supporters injured 10 people, said city Fire Chief Rodolfo Briceno.
The combined influence of Venezuela's crisis and the threat of U.S. war in Iraq sent crude futures to a high of $31.02 a barrel Monday on London's International Petroleum Exchange, and a two-year high of $33.65 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
U.S. markets were bracing for higher heating oil prices heading into winter, higher gas prices, and higher prices for all sorts of oil-based products. But reports that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was considering increasing output by at least 500,000 barrels a day took some heat out of the price.
Venezuela's opposition called the strike to force Hugo Chavez to call a Feb. 2 nonbinding referendum on his presidency, which runs to 2007. Strike leaders hope a poor showing will increase pressure on Chavez to resign. At least 35,000 of the 45,000 employees joined the walkout at Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., the state-owned oil monopoly, aren't on the job.
Opponents blame Chavez for economic contraction of 7 percent in 2002, annual inflation surpassing 30 percent, 17 percent unemployment and chronic political unrest. They charge Chavez is trying to impose a leftist authoritarian government.
Chavez counters his adversaries are trying to mount an "economic coup" and that Venezuela's constitution allows a binding referendum on his presidency next August.
Venezuela's government and opposition have traded charges over the actual state of the nation's crucial oil industry, which represents 30 percent of Venezuela's $100 billion gross domestic product.
Ramirez claimed Monday that oil production was up to 600,000 and 700,000 barrels a day and would reach 1.2 million barrels a day next week.
PDVSA executives say it's impossible for the government to increase production so quickly, even with replacements of field crews, executives, tanker crews and dockhands. The strike has cost $2 billion in lost oil revenue and damage to oil installations, Ramirez said.