CARACAS, Venezuela – Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched Saturday in support of 9,000 oil workers fired for leading a two-month strike against President Hugo Chavez that battered the economy of this oil-dependent nation.
Tens of thousands of Chavez opponents gathered outside four Caracas office buildings of the state oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA, waving national flags and chanting anti-government slogans.
"Chavez, thief! PDVSA is not yours, it's everyone's," the crowd chanted.
Venezuela's opposition -- business groups, labor unions and leftist and conservative politicians -- this week ended a strike in all areas but the crucial oil industry. The strike began Dec. 2 and sought Chavez's resignation or early elections.
The government claims most of PDVSA's 40,000 employees have returned to work. Strike leaders deny this, saying thousands refuse to return to their posts until Chavez rehires the fired workers and agrees to an early vote on his rule.
The government gradually is recovering Venezuela's oil industry, which was the world's fifth-largest exporter and a major U.S. supplier before the strike, when production was 3 million barrels a day.
Production during the strike fell to a low of 200,000 barrels. The government says production now is at 1.9 million barrels, while dissident executives put the figure at 1.3 million.
But two of the country's three major refineries remain largely idle and gasoline is scarce nationwide. Motorists wait in mile-long lines outside the few service stations with supplies.
The strike has cost Venezuela at least $4 billion, the government estimates.
The government has spent more than $500 million on gasoline and diesel imports since the strike began. Lines dwindled earlier this week with an influx of imports. Energy and Mines Minister Rafael Ramirez said Saturday gasoline supply would return to normal next week as more imports arrive and refining continues to increase.
Caracas fire chief Rodolfo Briceno estimated that as many as 100,000 people protested Saturday.
"Venezuelans are fed up," said storeowner Carlos Herrera, 43. "While Chavez fires brave workers, the people are still suffering from gasoline shortages because he has hired a bunch of incapable mercenaries. Their only merit is being partisan to his revolution."
Chavez has taken advantage of the strike to restructure PDVSA drastically. He has split the oil behemoth into two units, one for eastern Venezuela and one for western Venezuela, to reduce bureaucracy in Caracas, where dissent ran high.
Striking workers say the restructuring will weaken the company and scale back fiscal contribution in an industry that provides 70 percent of export earnings.
Marchers planned to deliver a letter of support for the oil workers to representatives of the Organization of American States, which is overseeing peace talks between the government and opposition. They said the letter was signed by more than 2 million Venezuelans.
OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria is supported in his mediation efforts by a six-nation panel called the "Group of Friends."
On Friday, Chavez warned the United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain and Portugal to recognize the "legitimate, democratic government" of Venezuela. He urged the international community not to be fooled by "lies" spread by the opposition-dominated media, whom he labeled "coup-plotters and fascists."
Opposition negotiators are demanding a constitution amendment that would shorten Chavez's six-year term and pave the way for general elections this year.