Chavez Government Backs Referendum to Solve Venezuelan Crisis

Venezuela's government rejected an opposition proposal to cut President Hugo Chavez's term and instead suggested a referendum on his rule later this year as a way out of the country's political crisis, a negotiator said Tuesday.

Ronald Blanco la Cruz, a government negotiator at talks mediated by the Organization of American States, said that under the government's proposal, opponents can start collecting signatures for a so-called recall referendum in August, halfway into Chavez's six-year term.

That was sure to infuriate the opposition, which says it already has collected more than 4 million signatures for a constitutional amendment ending Chavez's term this year and calling new elections.

Chavez repeatedly has pledged that a recall vote can be held in August -- not just that it can start to be organized, as indicated by Blanco la Cruz.

Blanco la Cruz, governor of Tachira state, also said the government has rejected the opposition's proposals to amend the constitution.

"Otherwise, people would start collecting signatures as soon as a president is elected," he told the government's Venezolana de Television.

Venezuela's constitution requires signatures from 20 percent of 11 million registered voters -- roughly 2.2 million people -- to demand a recall vote.

OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria has been mediating talks since November to try to end Venezuela's political deadlock.

He received a boost when former President Jimmy Carter laid out two options for Venezuela: a recall vote in August, or a constitutional amendment shortening Chavez's term to four years with an early election.

Chavez is a former army paratrooper who led a failed coup attempt 11 years ago Tuesday. Jailed for two years, he was elected president in 1998 on an anti-poverty platform and re-elected in 2000. His current term ends in January 2007.

Citing economic and political turmoil, Venezuela's opposition launched a general strike Dec. 2 to seek his ouster.

The strike crumbled this week as workers in all industries except oil returned to their jobs. The government, meanwhile, raised oil production to 1.2 million barrels a day, up from 1.1 million barrels over the weekend, according to dissident staff at the state oil company.

Venezuela produced 3.2 million barrels a day before the strike. It is a major supplier of crude to the United States and the world's fifth-largest petroleum exporter.

Venezuela was expected to add 200,000 more barrels per day in the coming weeks, staff at Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. said.

Fear of bankruptcy and shortages of gasoline and other essentials prompted leaders to end the strike. But they proclaimed victory, saying the strike had drawn pressure from the international community on Chavez to resolve the stalemate.

Julio Brazon, president of the Consecomercio business chamber, which represents about 450,000 businesses, said the strike was a "resounding success" because "an electoral solution to the crisis is in march."

Some analysts disagreed.

The strike reflected "the disorganization of the opposition," said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University. "It was anti-Chavez but never pro-anything. What were they going to replace Chavez with?"

The United States and five other countries have joined the OAS in mediating talks and seeking early elections.

Chavez claims his "revolutionary" government would crush the opposition at the ballot box. He said Sunday that he will prosecute strike leaders for sabotaging the economy.<< />