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VENEZUELA: STRIKE LEADER GRANTED EXILE IN COSTA RICA.

Carlos Ortega, head of the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) and one of the leaders of the two-month work stoppage that ended Feb. 2, asked for political asylum from Costa Rica. Meanwhile, a court lifted the arrest warrants for seven oil-company executives charged with sabotage in promoting participation in the walkouts.

On Feb. 19, a judge ordered the arrests of Ortega and Carlos Fernandez, president of the business organization Fedecamaras, on charges that included civil rebellion, criminal conspiracy, destruction, and treason--which was later dropped. Arrest warrants were also issued for seven executives of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).

Fernandez was detained by state security (DISIP) agents on Feb. 20 and is now under house arrest (see NotiSur, 2003- 02-28). For his part in the protest, Fernandez could face up to 24 years in prison. His business empire is near collapse, and the stress has taken a toll on his health by raising his blood-pressure.

The day after Fernandez was detained, Ortega went into hiding as did the PDVSA executives later that week.

Ortega slips into embassy

Ortega entered the Costa Rican Embassy on the night of March 13. Ortega said he would request asylum and would elaborate the motives for the petition.

Ortega's colleagues said he feared for his life. "Carlos Ortega had no other alternative because of these threats," another CTV leader, Pablo Castro, said. "There is no guarantee of a fair trial."

Opposition demonstrators quickly gathered at the Costa Rican Embassy to support Ortega. Embassy officials confirmed that he had been given temporary asylum. "He has been granted asylum in the embassy and he now has to make his formal case," Costa Rican Ambassador Ricardo Lizano told reporters.

On March 14, Costa Rican Foreign Minister Roberto Tovar said his country would give a quick response to Ortega's request for asylum. He said that Ortega would have to "present proof" that he was in physical danger to be given political asylum.

"In adherence to the institutional tradition of asylum, recognized by the Constitution and diverse international agreements, and for humanitarian reasons, the government has granted territorial asylum to Carlos Alfonso Ortega Carvajal," said a communique from the Foreign Ministry. Territorial asylum allows Ortega to stay in the embassy while the request for political asylum is processed.

Tovar said he had informed Ambassador Lizano of this decision and asked him to inform the Venezuelan authorities and request a safe-conduct exist for Ortega to leave for San Jose.

Venezuelan Interior Minister Lucas Rincon said the government would grant Ortega safe conduct to leave Venezuela for Costa Rica when that country approved the request for asylum. "The decision to grant asylum depends on the Costa Rican government," Rincon said. "If they grant asylum then we will grant him safe conduct out of the country."

CTV secretary general Manuel Cova said he would go to Geneva to meet with union leaders from Europe, the US, and from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). "We are going to inform and denounce in detail the harassment and political persecution to which the union movement and the opposition are being subjected in their efforts to recover the full effectiveness of democracy and freedoms in Venezuela," said Cova.

PDVSA executives out of hiding

Meanwhile, a court in Caracas annulled the arrest warrants for the seven PDVSA executives.

On Feb. 26, the Tribunal 50 de Control had ordered the arrests of Juan Fernandez, Horacio Medina, Gonzalo Feijoo, Lino Carrillo, Mireya Rinfanti, Edgar Quijano, and Juan Luis Santana. All went into hiding.

Fernandez, Medina, Feijoo, and Quijano were the principal promoters of the work stoppage in the oil sector that began Dec. 4. It brought losses of US$6 billion in oil revenues and other losses, according to the government.

The government has since restructured PDVSA and has fired 12,000 employees, mostly management. Oil company president Ali Rodriguez confirmed in mid-March that oil production has basically returned to December levels.

On March 17, a Caracas Appeals Court dropped the charges and the arrest warrants against the seven PDVSA executives on procedural grounds. The Sala Dos of the Corte de Apelaciones nullified the earlier action of Judge Belkis Cedeno.

The seven immediately came out of hiding, welcoming the court ruling. "This decision gives us hope in the Venezuelan justice system. There are still judges willing to maintain their independence," said Fernandez.

Prosecutors said they would appeal the ruling to the Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ).

Opposition battered by failure of work stoppage

Fernandez's arrest and Ortega's asylum request have dealt a blow to an already staggering opposition movement. The recent events illustrate Chavez's ability to outlast his opponents and remain in power despite opposition efforts against him. Ortega's departure from Venezuela could further weaken the opposition, which is struggling with internal divisions and low morale.

The opposition, under the umbrella Coordinadora Democratica (CD), says it will restructure and design new strategies to further its goal of ousting Chavez.

"We have to salvage the unity of the opposition and design the message about the country that we want to build for the future," said Gov. Enrique Mendoza of Miranda.

CD spokesperson Jesus Torrealba said that the opposition strategy would be "marked by mobilizations in the street and negotiations at the table." But since the work stoppage fizzled, neither efforts to mobilize large numbers in street protests nor efforts to negotiate new elections has borne fruit.

And friction within the CD has led to the departure of one of the few potentially viable candidates in a future election, Henrique Salas Romer. Salas Romer lost to Chavez in the 1998 election.

"Instead of getting tangled in a permanent verbal diatribe with the president, we need to win over his supporters." said a statement from Salas Romer's party, the Proyecto Venezuela. "All the strategies [of the CD] have led to defeats."

Salas Romer call the CD a "megaparty of the opposition, but with the same characteristics of the traditional parties." He said the opposition should avoid "autocratic models in which all decisions are made by a tiny group at the top and imposed on the country, which does not seem very democratic."

Meanwhile, the Venezuelans who failed to force Chavez out with the work stoppage are now in limbo and wondering what do to next. "Depressed isn't the word for it. I'm totally crushed," said Maria Jose Alonso, an out-of-work pharmacist. "Now Chavez is on the offensive."

Despite significant opposition, widespread among the Venezuelan upper class, polls, which often have their own bias, show that the president could still win an election with around 30% support, especially if the opposition vote remained divided.

"A lot of the opposition are shell-shocked. They fired their biggest artillery and missed. They underestimated Chavez and now they're marched out," said one European diplomat.

After four months of talks, Organization of American States (OAS) and other mediators have made little progress in efforts to end the bitter political stalemate between Chavez and the opposition.

Although the negotiations have not made any substantial advancements, Nicolas Maduro, one of six government representatives at the talks, said they have served as a "containment mechanism "to regulate the Venezuelan political conflict." [Sources: Reuters, 03/10/03, 03/14/03; The Miami Herald, 03/15/03; Notimex, 03/06/03, 03/07/03, 03/14/03, 03/15/03, 03/17/03; Spanish news service EFE, 02/26/03, 03/05/03, 03/06/03, 03/10/03, 03/12/03, 03/14/03, 03/18/03; Associated Press, 03/08/03, 03/17/03, 03/19/03; El Nuevo Herald (Miami), 03/13/03, 03/18/03, 03/19/03; BBC News, VHeadline.com, 03/18/03]
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Title Annotation:Carlos Ortega
Publication:NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs
Geographic Code:3VENE
Date:Mar 21, 2003
Words:1281
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