CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's opposition said it will hold a referendum to ask citizens if President Hugo Chavez should quit -- even if he ignores the vote, as he says he will.
"The referendum will happen with or without the participation of this regime," said Carlos Ortega, president of the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation and leader of a month-old general strike against Chavez.
Venezuela's state-owned oil monopoly proceeded with plans to try to break the strike by dividing the company into two parts to eliminate a faction of dissident managers based in Caracas.
Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. President Ali Rodriguez said last week that the government planned to cut some 6,000 jobs in Caracas, a center of anti-Chavez resistance, and in the western oil town of Maracaibo.
PDVSA wants to split its operations into eastern and western divisions to eliminate the opposition-dominated bureaucracy based in Caracas, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez had announced that he would personally run PDVSA while managers Felix Rodriguez and Luis Marin handle separate operations in eastern and western Venezuela -- bypassing the monopoly's central bureaucracy and tightening government control.
Ramirez said the government was contemplating other actions, including sales of nonessential assets such as U.S. subsidiary Citgo.
Ortega's workers confederation, Venezuela's biggest business chamber and a range of civic and political groups withstood attacks by Chavez street thugs in November to deliver 2 million signatures demanding a nonbinding referendum on Feb. 2.
They buttressed their demand with a Dec. 2 strike that has hamstrung Venezuela's oil industry, a top supplier to the United States and the world's fifth-largest exporter. The strike -- and the prospect of war in Iraq -- has helped pushed oil prices beyond $30 a barrel.
Chavez, a former army officer who staged a failed coup in 1992, was elected president in 1998 and re-elected in 2000. He is ignoring the referendum.
Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, said his mediation efforts -- two months old now -- to solve Venezuela's crisis depend on a pending Supreme Court decision on the legality of the nonbinding vote.
Chavez refused a request by the National Elections Council to fund the vote. Ortega and other strike leaders are collecting money to pay for it -- estimated at $22 million -- while the council says it may ask the OAS and other international bodies to help pay for the ballot.
"What are you afraid of? Why don't you want to be counted?" Ortega asked Chavez during a nationally televised news conference Monday.
Chavez has never answered such questions. He cites his hand-crafted Venezuelan constitution, which allows for only a binding referendum halfway into a six-year presidential term. In Chavez's case, that would be August.
Chavez's standing in popularity polls has remained at a consistent 30 percent since he was briefly overthrown in an April coup -- a high percentage among Latin American leaders. But some recent polls suggest as many as 90 percent of Venezuelan voters -- many of them so-called "chavistas" -- want elections now, well before Chavez's term ends in January 2007.
His term has seen incessant political unrest, a rapidly shrinking economy, ballooning unemployment, an increasingly feeble currency, endemic poverty and inflation surpassing 30 percent.
Chavez's government insisted Monday it was steadily reviving the oil industry.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said production was about 800,000 barrels a day and would reach more than 1 million barrels a day by the end of the week. Venezuela normally produces 3 million barrels a day.
Gasoline imports from Brazil, Trinidad and the United States were helping restock domestic supplies after weeks of long gas lines, Ramirez said. About 35,000 PDVSA workers are striking. Chavez urged them to return to work or face justice as "traitors."
Venezuela brought in a team of Algerian specialists to help -- and is seeking aid or imports from Iran, Mexico, Brazil, Trinidad, Ecuador and Colombia. Brazil's oil unions refuse to break the PDVSA strike.
Chavez vowed to use the strike to tighten government control over PDVSA and make it a trimmer, more profitable corporation. He has appointed loyal board members and fired almost 300 executives.
Chavez said exports have reached 1.5 million barrels a day, compared to 2.5 million before the strike. Analysts said the figure was unlikely.
"Frankly, we don't see any evidence," said Ed Silliere, vice president of risk management at Energy Merchant LLC in New York. "It's impossible to believe. It's farcical."
Local industry sources, speaking on condition they not be identified, said the government was making progress. They estimated exports at about 500,000 barrels a day and production at about 400,000 barrels a day -- double the lowest levels during the strike.