CARACAS, Venezuela – Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter proposed a plan Tuesday to lead Venezuela to elections and end a 51-day-old strike against President Hugo Chavez, which has dramatically cut production in the No. 5 oil-exporting country.
Carter's ideas were the first concrete proposals to emerge from more than two months of talks between the government and Venezuela's opposition, which called the strike to demand early elections or Chavez's resignation.
Both Chavez and opposition leaders reacted cautiously, saying they merited study.
Carter said the first plan would amend Venezuela's constitution to shorten presidential and legislative terms of office and stage early general elections.
It calls for Venezuela's opposition to end the strike and for the government, which has a congressional majority, to move quickly on changing the constitution. Amending the constitution requires the approval of congress and a popular referendum.
Chavez said Tuesday he told Carter he would respect any constitutional changes. "If the people were to decide it should be four years ... I have no problem with that," Chavez said.
Carter's second plan calls for both sides to prepare for a binding recall referendum on Chavez's presidency in August, the midpoint of Chavez's six-year term. Venezuela's constitution allows such a vote.
"We've been pleased with the reception we've had from both the government and the opposition," Carter said at a news conference before leaving Venezuela. "My opinion is that both sides want to end an impasse that is destroying the economy."
Oil provides 70 percent of export earnings and a third of Venezuela's $100 billion gross domestic product. It is a top supplier to the United States. Venezuela's output stands at about 627,000 barrels a day, compared to 3 million before the strike, according to strike leaders. The government claims production is at at least 800,000 barrels a day.
Opposition negotiator Alejandro Armas welcomed Carter's proposals.
A key point is the fate of workers at Venezuela's state owned oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. Some 30,000 of 40,000 workers are striking. Chavez has fired more than 1,000.
Carter said his proposal would have strikers return to work but allow the government to prosecute anyone accused of sabotaging equipment.
Some analysts say Venezuela's economy, which shrank by an estimated 8 percent in 2002, could contract by as much as 40 percent in the first quarter of 2003. Gasoline and many foods have become scarce. Factories have closed and multinationals have evacuated personnel for security reasons.
Venezuela's opposition, which called the strike Dec. 2, has insisted that Venezuela is too polarized over Chavez's leftist polices to wait until August for an election.
But labor leader Carlos Ortega suggested Tuesday there were differences among opposition leaders over when to end the strike. "The strike is out of our hands," he said, speaking of his Venezuelan Workers Confederation, one of dozens of groups behind the strike.
Chavez, 48, was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000 on promises to help Venezuela's majority poor. Constant political unrest has contributed to 17 percent unemployment, 30 percent inflation and a weakening currency, which reached a record low of 1,853 to the U.S. dollar Tuesday.
Oil prices declined Tuesday after some harbor pilots in western Venezuela's oil-rich Maracaibo Lake returned to work. The action could increase exports. Foreign-flagged tankers refused to enter ports staffed by unqualified pilots and dockworkers.
Diplomats from the "Friends of Venezuela," grouping Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States, will hold their first meeting at the Organization of American States in Washington on Friday.
"The group will not be changed," Carter said. "It's a group of very influential countries that can help ensure that any agreement will be honored."
Venezuela's National Elections Council, after accepting an opposition petition, agreed to organize a Feb. 2 nonbinding referendum to ask citizens if Chavez should resign. Chavez has refused to fund the vote and is challenging its legality before the Supreme Court.