Troops fired tear gas Sunday to drive back tens of thousands of anti-government protesters as President Hugo Chavez ordered a crackdown on a 6-week-old opposition strike that is bleeding the economy. Nineteen people were injured.
As the demonstrators in Caracas, the capital, fled the clouds of gas, the leftist leader warned opponents that he would not let them disrupt schools, banks or food supplies in a strike that has already crippled shipments by the world's No. 5 oil exporter.
"They want to break us economically. They are not going to do it. I swear it by God and my mother," Chavez said during his weekly "Hello President" television and radio show.
Waving national flags, the protesters marched in a park near the Ft. Tiuna military headquarters as part of their campaign to force the president to resign or call early elections.
They found their path blocked by barbed wire barricades, armored vehicles and several hundred national guard troops and military police, who fired a volley of tear gas canisters.
The park is one of eight security zones in Caracas designated by Chavez. Protests are banned in those areas unless authorized by the Defense Ministry.
During his broadcast, Chavez signed a decree creating a special government commission to combat a tax rebellion announced by opposition leaders. By urging Venezuelans not to pay taxes, the strikers hope to cut government revenue already drained by the strike.
The president, elected in 1998, said the strike is costing the country tens of millions of dollars a day.