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Venezuela importing gas to ease oil strike

A soldier organizes the distribution of gasoline Saturday at a gas station in Caracas, Venezuela.
A soldier organizes the distribution of gasoline Saturday at a gas station in Caracas, Venezuela.

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CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) -- Opponents of embattled President Hugo Chavez planned another day of demonstrations Sunday as Venezuela, one of the world's largest oil producers, began importing gasoline to break an oil workers' strike.

The first shipment arrived Saturday from neighboring Brazil. The move has enraged Chavez's opponents, who accused Brazil of interfering in Venezuela's internal affairs by helping the leftist leader break the strike.

The strike has led to mile-long gas lines in Caracas, the capital of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, and other cities.

"When we arrived at the pump, the attendant said, 'Sorry, we're out of gas,' " one man said. "And I'd waited from 1 in the afternoon to 6 in the morning the next day."

Others have held their places in line at sold-out gasoline stations in hopes that the pumps would reopen soon.

Chavez said his government has managed to keep open the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., despite the 28-day-old strike and hoped to return production to normal levels within 15 days.

Before the strike, Venezuela produced about 3 million barrels of oil a day. Since the walkout began, government officials said, production dropped to 200,000 barrels a day before climbing back up to its current rate of between 600,000 and 700,000 barrels per day.

"We think that by mid-January, we will normalize the operations of PDVSA," Energy Vice Minister Bernardo Alvarez said Friday.

Government officials said the Puerto la Cruz refinery east of Caracas was running at about 70 percent of its capacity, but the refinery is one of Venezuela's smallest.

Striking workers said the government lacks the manpower to resume normal production levels.

"They're trying to run the company, but they are not enough," said Alfredo Gomez, a PDVSA technical analyst. "They are not qualified or skilled enough to do that."

Chavez, a former paratrooper who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992, was elected president in 1998. His fiery populism has polarized Venezuelans: Much of the country's poor support him, but he has antagonized wide segments of the middle class and was forced from office in April in an abortive coup that lasted two days.

Daily demonstrations aimed at forcing him to resign have paralyzed Venezuela's oil industry, which provides about 15 percent of U.S. oil imports. The general strike is costing Venezuela about $50 million a day in lost oil revenue.

Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, has been trying to mediate between the government and its opponents. Talks between the sides are continuing, but Gaviria is not scheduled to rejoin them until Thursday.

The strike, coupled with fears of a war in the Middle East, has pushed oil prices above $30 a barrel.

Three protesters have been killed this month, and government troops have used rubber bullets to break up crowds of protesters who have been blocking highways.

CNN Correspondent Lucia Newman contributed to this report.

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