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Venezuela banks strike { January 8 2003 }

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Venezuela strike spreads to banks

Union leaders said the action by employees would halt services to the public Thursday and Friday.
January 8, 2003: 8:35 PM EST

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan bank workers Wednesday called a 48-hour shutdown of banking services this week, escalating a five-week opposition strike that has already crippled the country's vital oil exports.

The bank stoppage call spooked Venezuela's currency market, sending the local bolivar tumbling against the U.S. dollar.

Union leaders said the action by employees at private and state banks across the South American nation would halt services to the public Thursday and Friday.

"We are calling for a complete banking stoppage," Jose Elias Torres, president of the bank workers' union federation Fetrabanca, told a news conference in Caracas.

Fetrabanca called the work stoppage in support of the grueling strike launched by opposition leaders on Dec. 2 to press leftist President Hugo Chavez to resign and hold early elections. The ongoing shutdown has crippled oil output and shipments by the world's No. 5 petroleum exporter.

The Venezuelan Central Bank's bolivar reference rate against the U.S. dollar closed 5.7 percent down at 1,507/1,510.50 bolivars. The local currency's interbank rate slid by nearly 10 percent against the U.S. greenback to an average low of 1,585 bolivars, traders said.

As the opposition's economic offensive against the populist president increased, so too did tension on the streets.

National Guard troops fired tear gas Wednesday to keep back stone-throwing Chavez supporters who besieged the National Electoral Council in Caracas, where opposition leaders were holding a news conference. No injuries were reported.

The pro-Chavez demonstrators chanted "Chavez is not resigning" and "The banks belong to the people."

The 48-hour banking strike heralded fresh disruptions for the Venezuelan public, already coping with a scarcity of gasoline and shortages of some food products caused by the general strike. Private banks had already been restricting their daily services to three hours a day during the strike.

After the stoppage was announced, lines formed at banks in Caracas as clients rushed to withdraw cash before the weekend.


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