CARACAS, Venezuela – Foes of President Hugo Chavez vowed on Saturday to step up efforts to resolve the country's crisis peacefully — one day after troops battled through protesters to raid privately owned bottling plants.
Government adversaries urged Venezuelans to use their vote in a Feb. 2 nonbinding referendum on Chavez's rule rather than respond to violence with more violence.
Opposition representatives at talks mediated by the Organization of American States said they would plow on with negotiations despite statements by Chavez that the government could leave the talks.
"The president can try to leave the table with a characteristically violent gesture but we reply with civilized, democratic and peaceful behavior," said Alejandro Armas, one of six opposition representatives at the talks. "We are going to stay at the table."
Cesar Gaviria, the OAS secretary general, began mediating the talks in November. Little progress has been made while a 7-week-old strike called by business and labor groups to force Chavez from office threatens to destroy Venezuela's economy.
"If we decide to leave the table it's because those people (opposition) don't show demonstrations of wanting to take the democratic path," Chavez told the state-run Venpres news agency Saturday.
On Friday, soldiers seized food and drink from Venezuela's largest food company, Empresas Polar, and an affiliate of U.S. soft drink giant Coca-Cola to distribute among the people.
Chavez defended the raids in the industrial city of Valencia, 66 miles west of Caracas. He said the companies that owned the plants were denying Venezuelans food and drink during the crippling strike.
On Saturday, dozens of anti-Chavez protesters demonstrated outside a bottling plant in Valencia. One banner read, "Don't Buy Stolen Coke!" An anti-government protest by candlelight was slated to take place in the capital.
U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro said he was "concerned and disappointed" by the seizures, which affect U.S. interests in Venezuela.
"I strongly hope I'm wrong, but it looks like the officers did not act within the law," Shapiro said. "There was no (judicial) order, nor a judge" present.
The Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce and Industry denounced the actions as unconstitutional and offered support to any member companies whose rights were threatened.
Chavez was in Brazil on Saturday to speak with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva about the newest initiative to end the bitter stalemate. A so-called "Group of Friends of Venezuela" is being set up with the participation of Brazil, the United States, Mexico, Chile, Portugal and Spain.
Chavez said he would seek similar meetings with presidents of the group's other member countries and added he was not worried by U.S. involvement. Washington has indicated it believes the best way out of the crisis is through new elections.
"I am not afraid of the opinions of the United States in the negotiations of the Group of Friends, because the United States is also a friend of Venezuela," Chavez said.
Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
Allies and adversaries of Chavez expect a forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on the legality of the proposed Feb. 2 referendum.
Venezuela's opposition says it will ignore any decision that tries to stop the referendum, while Chavez says he will not step down even if he loses by 90 percent.
Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, insists his foes must wait until August — or halfway through his six-year term — when a recall referendum is permitted by the constitution.
His opponents say they cannot wait that long. They accuse the former paratroop commander of running the country's democratic institutions into the ground.
Chavez promised radical change in the oil-rich country where 80 percent of the 24 million people live in poverty. But an economic recession has brought unemployment to 17 percent, and a devaluation of the bolivar currency fueled 30 percent inflation last year.
The strike has caused severe food and fuel shortages and hobbled the oil industry, costing the nation at least $4 billion.
Venezuela produced 3 million barrels a day of crude before the strike but output was at 512,000 barrels Friday, according to striking employees of the state-owned oil monopoly Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.
Chavez insisted his government was reviving oil production.