Sun, Nov 05, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Venezuela's president makes backing him a job requirement for oil workers

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION With the poll a month away, Hugo Chavez's demand has sparked opposition anger


President Hugo Chavez has suggested that oil workers and soldiers who oppose his revolution "should go somewhere else," confronting a scandal after his top oil official was caught on videotape threatening to fire employees who fail to back their leader.

The leaked footage aired on an opposition-aligned private TV station, and on Friday, the president said he may block some private TV channels from renewing their licenses next year.

In the wobbly amateur video, Minister of Energy and Petroleum Rafael Ramirez was shown telling state oil company workers to back Chavez or give up their jobs. The video, released Thursday by the opposition, provoked an outcry among critics who argue the government is illegally mobilizing its workers and financial might behind Chavez's campaign ahead of the Dec. 3 presidential election.

Chavez defended Ramirez, saying Friday that he agrees workers must be loyal to his Bolivarian Revolution movement.

"Of course PDVSA [Petroleos de Venezuela SA] is revolutionary," Chavez said as he inaugurated a new subway line outside Caracas. "Petroleos de Venezuela workers are with this revolution, and those who aren't should go somewhere else. Go to Miami."

Chavez accused opponents of coup-plotting and said the military, like PDVSA, must be totally committed. "Venezuelan soldiers are in this revolution, and I have told them: Anyone who isn't had better leave here," he said.

He accused some private TV channels of fomenting conspiracies against his government and warned in a televised speech: "Don't be surprised if I say there are no more concessions to some TV channels," when their licenses expire in March.

With the presidential election weeks away, he warned Vene-zuelans to be alert to "any sign" of a coup attempt. He also reminded his audience that during a short-lived coup against him in April 2002, some private channels aired cartoons while the leader's supporters were on the streets demanding his return to power.

The state oil company, the country's single largest employer with a 40,000-member work force, has been heavily pro-Chavez since the president dismissed nearly half its workers to end an anti-government oil strike in 2003.

But aides to opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales cite electoral rules that prohibit using PDSVA and other arms of the government as campaign tools.

Last week, Chavez opponents complained of vote-buying when the government paid early Christmas bonuses to public workers. The opposition also complains state-funded advertising and TV time are giving the incumbent an illegal edge.

The issue promises to become a key test for the National Electoral Council, appointed earlier this year by the solidly pro-Chavez Congress.

In the videotape aired on Thursday, Ramirez told PDVSA employees there should be no doubt the company backs Chavez.

"We want to make this clear. We are supporting Chavez ... and whoever doesn't feel comfortable with this orientation needs to give up their seat," he said.

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