Venezuela's government, business sector seek common ground in wake of unrest

Tuesday, April 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ After five months of confrontation that boiled over with a coup attempt, Venezuela's business leaders and lawmakers vowed to find common ground on leftist President Hugo Chavez's economic policies.

National Assembly Vice President Simon Jimenez announced Monday that congress was prepared to change economic laws Chavez adopted by decree last year, strengthening the state's role in the economy and infuriating many business leaders.

Jimenez emphasized that Chavez has called for dialogue among all sectors of Venezuelan society. While opposition was not quite strong enough to oust him, support for Chavez in the legislature has been eroded.

Chavez initiated the battle against business in November when he used special powers the legislature had granted him to decreed 49 laws affecting industries from oil to farming.

Fedecamaras, a business group that produces 60 percent of the country's $110 billion gross domestic product, joined organized labor in a general strike to protest the decrees on Dec. 10.

They called another general strike April 9 that led to a massive opposition protest, street violence and Chavez's temporary ouster by the military.

Fedecamaras head Pedro Carmona was sworn in as interim president April 13, a day after the military ousted Chavez. A popular uprising and loyalist generals restored Chavez to power less than 48 hours later, and Carmona is now under house arrest.

Carmona's replacement at Fedecamaras, Carlos Fernandez, warily welcomed the government's call for cooperation at a meeting on Monday with leftist Commerce Minister Adina Bastidas.

Stabilizing Venezuela's economy is essential to ending the political standoff that predated the coup. The government is strapped for cash, inflation is rising and unemployment is high at 16 percent.

Officials have moved quickly to stabilize the crucial sector. Ali Rodriguez, the new head of Venezuela's state-owned oil monopoly, appointed a new company board on Monday that he hopes will placate dissident executives. The executives had protested Chavez's appointment of a new board of directors at Petroleos de Venezuela, and they staged a work slowdown that threatened exports from the No. 3 oil supplier to the United States. Oil income financed a third of government spending last year.

Rodriguez, who is stepping down as secretary general of OPEC, stressed there should be no retaliation against those who rebelled against Chavez's board appointments.