CARACAS, Venezuela – Opponents of President Hugo Chavez began focusing on a petition driver to cut his term in power Saturday, after agreeing to ease a two-month strike that has crippled Venezuela's economy.
Opposition leaders plan to hold what they call the "Great Sign-up" on Sunday, inviting citizens to sign various initiatives rejecting Chavez's government and seeking his ouster.
The opposition hopes one petition in particular -- a constitutional amendment to reduce Chavez's term from six to four years -- will succeed, paving the way for general elections later this year.
Under the constitution, organizers need signatures from 15 percent, or about 1.8 million, of the country's 12 million registered voters -- a number they expect to easily surpass.
"Our idea is to get 5 million signatures," Carlos Ocariz, a member of the opposition party Justice First, said Saturday on Globovision television.
The amendment was one of two proposals made by Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President Jimmy Carter. The other is to hold a recall referendum on Chavez's rule halfway through his six-year term, in August. The opposition will also collect signatures for this initiative Sunday.
Representatives from the United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal and Spain said met in Caracas on Friday to urge both sides to accept one of Carter's proposals and bring Venezuela's prolonged crisis to a swift end.
The six-nation "Group of Friends" said both the government and opposition must make concessions during negotiations mediated by Cesar Gaviria, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States.
Strike organizers, who began the protest Dec. 2 to pressure Chavez into accepting a referendum on his rule, said they would ease the work stoppage next week to protect businesses against bankruptcy.
"We are expecting a gradual return to activities in the various sectors that make up the country," opposition negotiator Manuel Cova said Saturday. "We want to give the international community our absolute disposal to negotiate an electoral solution."
The strike has cost at least $4 billion in lost oil revenues alone, the government estimates. And the Santander Central Hispano investment bank has warned that the economy could shrink by as much as 40 percent in the first quarter of 2003.
Venezuela's annualized inflation reached 33.8 percent in January, the highest in five years, the central bank said Saturday.
Most small businesses never joined the strike, and many more companies have opened their doors in recent days. Factories, schools, malls and franchise restaurants would be urged to open next week, strike leaders said Friday.
Effects of the strike remain greatest in the vital oil industry, which makes up a third of the economy and provides half of government income. Despite government efforts to restart the industry, production remains just over 1 million barrels a day, or about a third of pre-strike levels.