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Chavez: Venezuela Will Resume Full Oil Production in 45 Days

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Thursday his country's oil industry, crippled by a monthlong general strike, is recovering and will reach its pre-strike capacity in 45 days. Domestic opponents said the claim was false.

Chavez made the comments to reporters in Brazil, where he had come to attend the inauguration of the new president, despite the turmoil of a month-long strike led by the opposition aiming to remove Chavez from power.

Chavez met with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was sworn in as Brazil's president on Wednesday, and asked him to send experts from Brazil's state-owned oil company to replace some of the 40,000 Venezuelan state oil company workers who have walked off the job.

After a breakfast with Silva, Chavez told reporters the Brazilian president said he would consider the request and discuss it with the new head of Brazil's oil company, Petrobras. The name of the new Petrobras chief was expected to be announced Thursday.

Chavez has fired dozens of striking managers from the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., and sent troops to guard installations across the country. He insists replacement workers are slowly bringing refineries and oil wells back online.

After a meeting that stretched until 4 a.m. in a Brasilia hotel with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Chavez said Venezuela is now producing 800,000 barrels a day, up from the 200,000 barrels at the country's lowest level of production.

"We are at 800,000 and we are going to recover our full capacity of 3 million barrels a day," Chavez told reporters. It will take between a month and 45 days to reach full capacity, he said.

In Venezuela, opposition leaders disputed Chavez's claim and said most of the industry's 40,000 workers remain off the job. Strike leaders insist the government will not be able to restart operations without them.

Also, opposition estimates of current oil output were at odds with government claims. There was no way to independently reconcile the figures.

Venezuela's opposition Democratic Coordinator -- a coalition of opposition parties, business associations and labor unions -- insisted output was only 190,000 barrels per day and that natural gas production was down by 80 percent.

The organization acknowledged that about 40 million barrels of gasoline stored in Venezuela's giant Paraguana refinery complex could supply the countries for 20 days.

Yet, the Democratic Coordinator said in a Thursday statement, the lack of additional storage capacity at Paraguana would make restarting operations impossible.

"Gasoline distribution seems to get worse by the day," it said.

The strike, which began Dec. 2, has forced motorists to line up at service stations for hours. Store shelves were increasingly bare, especially of drinks like milk, bottled water and beer.

The oil industry represents 30 percent of Venezuela's $100 billion gross domestic product and 70 percent of exports. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and a major provider to the United States. The strike has helped push international oil prices above $30 per barrel.

Negotiations sponsored by the Organization of American States were set to resume Thursday after a brief break for New Year's. The main topic is the opposition's demand that Chavez submit to early elections or at least a nonbinding referendum on his presidency.

Chavez has vowed not to resign. He argues Venezuela's constitution only allows a binding referendum in August 2003, halfway into his six-year term.

Chavez accused the Venezuelan opposition of "losing (its) soul" and being indifferent to sick people who cannot be transported to hospitals because of the gas shortage.

During his breakfast with Silva, Chavez brought up the idea of increasing cooperation among Latin American state-owned oil industries and set up a company called Petro-America.

"It would become a sort of Latin American OPEC", Chavez said. "It would start with Venezuela's PDVSA and Brazil's Petrobras," and could come to include Ecopetrol from Colombia, PetroEcuador from Ecuador, and PetroTrinidad from Trinidad and Tobago."

He didn't mention what reaction Silva might have had to the idea. He said he also suggested it to Castro, who Chavez said liked the plan because, the Venezuelan leader joked, "he told me that Cuba has found oil."

"It is a secret offshore field," he quipped.

The Venezuelan leader was among leaders of 119 foreign country who attended Wednesday's inauguration of Silva, Brazil's first elected leftist leader.