CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez on Sunday threatened to order more raids on striking private food producers and warned the government may abandon negotiations with opponents trying to force him from office.
Meanwhile, thousands of Venezuelans with roots in Italy, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Portugal and other countries marched for peace, waving the flags of their homelands and Venezuela. Some carried signs that read "liberty" and "union" in six languages.
"I've never seen the country so divided," said Jose Lopes, 60, a bookstore owner who immigrated to Venezuela from Portugal as a teenager. "We don't want to leave but if Chavez doesn't leave it's a possibility."
Opponents accuse the 48-year-old president of running roughshod over democratic institutions and wrecking the economy with leftist policies.
A combination of opposition parties, business leaders and labor unions called for a general strike on Dec. 2 to demand Chavez accept the results of a nonbinding referendum on his rule.
Venezuela's National Elections Council scheduled the vote for Feb. 2 after accepting an opposition petition, but Chavez's supporters have challenged the referendum in court. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue soon.
Chavez, whose six-year term ends in 2007, insists his foes must wait until August -- or halfway through his six-year term -- when a recall referendum is permitted by the constitution.
The strike has brought Venezuela's economy to a standstill, causing shortages of gasoline, food and drink, including bottled water, milk, soft drinks and flour.
Local producers insist they are still making basic foodstuffs but that fuel shortages and lack of security for their transport workers have hampered deliveries.
"Some businessmen have reflected and have started to open their factories," Chavez said during his weekly television and radio show. "Those who refuse, who resist, well, be sure that today, tomorrow, or after we will raid your warehouses and stockpiles."
On Friday, National Guard soldiers seized water and soft drinks from two bottling plants. One was an affiliate of Coca-Cola, the other belonged to Venezuela's largest food and drinks producer, Empresas Polar.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel on Sunday rejected U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro's criticism of the raids, which he said affected U.S. interests in Venezuela. Shapiro also questioned their legality.
"Ambassador, with all due respect, you are not an authority in this country," Rangel said Sunday while speaking to supporters in Venezuela's Margarita Island.
Bilateral "relations have to be on an equal plain of mutual respect. This is not a protectorate, it is not a colony," Rangel said.
Chavez also warned the government would walk away from negotiations sponsored by the Organization of American States if the opposition continued seeking his ouster through what he calls unconstitutional means.
"We are carefully evaluating the possibility that our representatives will leave the (negotiating) table," he said. "We don't talk with terrorists. We are willing to talk with any Venezuelan within the framework of the constitution."
The talks, which began in November, have yielded few results. Six countries -- Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States -- have begun an initiative called "Friends of Venezuela" to support the negotiations.
The strike is strongest in Venezuela's oil industry, previously the world's fifth-largest exporter.
Oil production has dwindled to 800,000 barrels a day, compared with the 3 million barrels a day the country usually produces, according to the government. Strike leaders put the figure at 400,000 barrels a day.
Chavez, who has fired more than 1,000 strikers from the state oil monopoly, said Sunday that production could be restored to 2 million barrels a day by the end of the month.
But Chavez acknowledged that gasoline shortages have increased. He blamed the difficulties on "sabotage" by strikers and delayed gasoline imports. He also promised to reinforce troop presence at oil installations and said 60 gasoline trucks were on their way to Caracas, the capital, on Sunday.
"Keep rationing gasoline," Chavez urged listeners.
Besides the factory raid, troops have seized striking oil tankers and kept strikers out of oil installations. Five people have died in politically related violence since the strike began.
Also Sunday, Chavez appointed retired Gen. Lucas Rincon as his interior minister, replacing Diosdado Cabello, who was named infrastructure minister last week. Rincon's appointment comes despite his role in April's failed coup and his later resignation as defense minister.
Rincon announced to the world that Chavez resigned after 19 people died during an opposition march on the presidential palace. Loyal soldiers restored Chavez to power two days later after an interim government dissolved the constitution.
Chavez also appointed Gen. Jorge Garcia Carneiro as commander of Venezuela's army, replacing Gen. Julio Garcia Montoya.