CARACAS, Venezuela – Supporters of Hugo Chavez planned rallies in the capital Saturday and opponents planned protests in several foreign cities after the Venezuelan president threatened to seize private food stocks and plants to end shortages.
Chavez warned businesses hoarding food on Friday that he might send troops to seize private property and distribute basic foodstuffs, which have begun to run low because of a six-week general strike.
Chavez supporters planned a show of support for the president in one of the capital's poorest districts, while opponents were staging a protest in the central city of Maracay, Venezuela's military center. Rallies also were planned in several foreign cities, including Washington, Toronto and London.
Chavez stopped short of giving an order, but had issued a decree in December allowing the military to temporarily confiscate private property to guarantee the flow of gasoline and other basic essentials.
Soldiers have since commandeered private gasoline trucks and National Guard troops seized 14 full gasoline tankers on Friday in the central state of Carabobo, the state news agency Venpres reported.
"This is an economic coup. They are trying to deny the people food, medicine and even water," Chavez told thousands of supporters in western Cojedes state on Friday. "They won't succeed."
The Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce told its more than 1,000 members to report any seizures of private property, saying such action would be illegal.
The president also said he fired 1,000 workers from the state oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA. An estimated 30,000 of the company's 40,000 employees have joined the strike.
Venezuela's opposition launched the strike Dec. 2 to pressure Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected two years later, to resign and call elections if he loses a nonbinding referendum on his rule.
Chavez insists Venezuela's constitution only permits a recall referendum on his presidency at the halfway-mark of his six-year term, or this August.
The strike has paralyzed the world's fifth largest oil exporter and caused fuel shortages while opponents stage daily street marches and urge tax evasion to force Chavez from office.
Meanwhile, many Venezuelans wait to see if disorganization and a lack of funding in Venezuela's elections council will dash opposition plans for a referendum Feb. 2.
The Chavez-dominated Congress has yet to authorize $22 million required for voting.
Alfredo Avella, president of the National Elections Council, said Friday the vote may be postponed to "a later date that permits the viability of the process."
Thousands of anti-Chavez protesters fought through tear gas and gunfire from pro-Chavez street toughs on Nov. 4 to deliver 2 million signatures to force the plebiscite.
Venezuelan law requires at least 10 percent of its 12 million registered voters to call a referendum.
Opposition leaders say they will pay for the referendum themselves if Congress refuses.
Many Venezuelans, however, say they won't contribute to the effort given that the nation is experiencing its worst recession in decades.
"The politicians asking for money are the same ones who robbed the country, and they are responsible for the economic crisis. Why should I give them any money?" said Manuel Arteaga, 45, who sells cigarettes on the sidewalks of downtown Caracas.
Other potential delays include organizing 180,000 volunteers to monitor voting booths, printing 12 million ballots, and protecting voting centers and materials.
While Chavez opponents wait for the ballot, the South American nation of 24 million is gripped with unrest.
Police used tear gas Friday to prevent pro- and anti-Chavez protesters from clashing in Venezuela's Margarita Island. Several children inside a nearby daycare were hospitalized, a local civil defense spokesman said.
Five people have died in protests since the strike began.
Negotiations to end the stalemate, led by secretary-general of the Organization of American States Cesar Gaviria and including officials from the White House, have made little progress.