CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ A nationwide strike aimed at toppling President Hugo Chavez has forced Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, to import gasoline and haggle with other countries for food.
In deals that were once unthinkable here, Brazil announced Thursday it would ship 520,000 barrels of gasoline to Venezuela by the weekend while the Dominican Republic said it would send food as a partial payment for oil it has received in the past.
Venezuela is also negotiating with neighboring Colombia for milk and meat, said Agriculture Minister Efren Andrade.
The nearly month-old strike has paralyzed Venezuela's all-important petroleum industry, which usually supplies the United States with 14 percent of its oil. Exports have declined from 3 million barrels a day to a trickle, depriving Venezuela of $50 million a day in revenue.
Regular Venezuelans, who once took pride in their country's cheap gasoline and natural gas, are now facing shortages. On Thursday, about 300 people blocked a Caracas highway to demand propane cooking gas.
``We are desperate. We've been using charcoal and kerosene to cook for two weeks now,'' said Faustino Gonzalez, a 59-year-old taxi driver.
As foreign oil orders went unfilled, opposition leaders met with Brazil's ambassador Thursday to urge Brazil not to interfere by helping Chavez break the oil strike.
The government rejected opposition demands that striking oil workers be allowed to keep their jobs as part of any settlement, government negotiator Nicolas Maduro said Thursday.
Fears that the strike could continue well into 2003, coupled with fears of war in Iraq, have helped push oil prices above $32 a barrel, the highest in two years.
As the strike began biting into the savings of Venezuelan workers, one protest leader, Caracas City Councilman Enrique Ochoa Antich, said the opposition should consider ending the strike and focus instead on a referendum on Chavez's presidency.
``The fundamental outcome we wanted (with the strike), the president's resignation, or his compliance with a consultative referendum, has not been achieved,'' said Ochoa Antich.
Venezuelan labor, business and political leaders launched the strike on Dec. 2 to demand that Chavez accept a Feb. 2 nonbinding referendum on his rule. The national elections council is organizing a vote over Chavez's objections.
The president's opponents, who blame him for a steep recession, originally said they hoped a poor showing by Chavez in a nonbinding vote would increase pressure on him to resign.
Chavez argues a nonbinding vote is unconstitutional and declared he wouldn't leave office even if 90 percent voted against him. Pro-Chavez lawmakers have asked the Supreme Court to declare the vote illegal.
The president says his opponents can call a binding recall vote halfway into his six-year term, or next August.
But during talks sponsored by the Organization of American States on Thursday, the government agreed not stand in the way of the referendum if the Supreme Court upholds it, Maduro said.
Ochoa Antich said the opposition must spend the coming weeks preparing international observers and voting materials for the referendum. He warned the strike was hurting the country and Chavez showed no sign of budging.
``Unfortunately, we have a government that is capable of cutting off its nose'' to stay in power, he said.
However, other opposition politicians said there were no plans to call off the strike.
``We will continue (the strike) until the government recognizes the crisis it is in and agrees to an electoral solution,'' said Carlos Ocariz, whose Justice First party is leading the referendum drive.