Strike-Breakers Load Oil Tankers in Venezuela

Workers crossed the proverbial picket line and have begun loading oil onboard Venezuelan tankers on Wednesday. The 10-day strike has blocked oil exports and put pressure on President Hugo Chavez to quit. The government said the Marshall Chuikov sailed for the United States with 350,000 barrels of crude oil, and another three tankers carrying a total 1.35 million barrels were loading at other ports, breaking the anti-Chavez strikers' stranglehold on the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.

Shipping agents confirmed at least two ships had loaded, but said this was only a small beginning because another 40 tankers are bottlenecked in ports. Venezuela usually exports 2.7 million barrels a day and supplies 14 percent of U.S. oil imports. "We've broken the blockade which was imposed upon us in the east in Zulia and we are dispatching oil to the whole world," Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said.

The strike has cut production to a third of normal levels and most refineries were still out of action. Opposition strike leaders, pushing to force the fiery populist Chavez to quit or call a prompt election, said no end to the deadlock was in sight. "There is no possibility of an agreement at the moment," said union boss Carlos Ortega.

In another attempt at strike-breaking, the military again showed it could board halted tankers, but not make them sail. A boarding party launched a predawn raid on propane tanker Yavire, anchored off the eastern oil port of Puerto la Cruz. "We were worried that they'd shoot someone by mistake," said the Yavire's chief engineer, Cesar Franco, adding the ship was still on strike.

Venezuela is losing $50 million a day with refineries and ports serving PDVSA shut down, the government said. Talks to break the stalemate have gone nowhere. Chavez was elected in 1998 and his term is due to run until 2007.