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Venezuelan claims progress with oil industry

An protester runs from tear gas fired by National Guardsmen during Monday's Maracaibo bridge march.
An protester runs from tear gas fired by National Guardsmen during Monday's Maracaibo bridge march.

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CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- As a general strike entered its fourth week Monday, Venezuelan authorities said they are advancing in their efforts to retake control of the oil industry and return life to normal.

President Hugo Chavez, whose leftist policies are under attack by the largely middle class protesters whose strike has ground commercial activity in the country to a near halt, sent armed forces to move idled tankers and get the petroleum industry back on its feet.

Gasoline production has nearly halted since oil workers went on strike early this month, throwing the country into disarray.

The shortage has affected the supply of basic goods in supermarkets and resulted in accusations of price gouging.

Opposition leaders said 36,000 oil workers from the state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., are on strike and have vowed to remain on strike until Chavez resigns or calls early elections.

Striking oil executives said if the government is able to regain control of the industry, it will take several weeks to get it back to speed.

Chavez also promised to send 150 tanker trucks to replenish stocks at gasoline stations, where motorists typically waited hours in line to fill up their cars.

But Monday afternoon, lines of cars still snaked for blocks around gas stations.

Venezuelan troops used tear gas Monday to disperse anti-government demonstrators who tried to block the bridge that spans Lake Maracaibo, in the heart of oil country, but were dispersed by troops using tear gas.

Another anti-government demonstration was planned for Monday night in front of the headquarters of the oil company.

A number of pro-government demonstrations have been held.

Meanwhile, negotiations between the two sides -- mediated by Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States -- continued Monday.

Both sides are talking about the possibility of declaring new elections but have not agreed on when they should take place.

Opposition leaders said they are planning to hold vigils and a series of peaceful street activities on Christmas Day.

Venezuelans play dominos Monday as they wait in a Caracas gas station line.
Venezuelans play dominos Monday as they wait in a Caracas gas station line.

The general strike is costing the country about $50 million a day in lost oil revenues and has caused output to plummet from about 3 million barrels per day to fewer than 200,000 barrels per day.

Venezuela accounts for about 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, and the shutdown, along with the possibility of war in Iraq, has pushed the world oil price above $30 a barrel.

Three protesters have died in violence this month and government troops have been using rubber bullets to break up crowds of protesters blocking highways.

Chavez, a former paratrooper, was elected to office in 1998 after leading an unsuccessful coup in 1992.

He is a fiery populist whose rule has polarized Venezuelans. While he still retains strong support among the poor, he has antagonized many middle class people, who have attacked his leftist style of governing and his unwavering support of the poor.

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