Costa Rica Grants Asylum to a Leader of Venezuelan Strike

Special to The Times

Costa Rica granted asylum Friday to a leader of a failed two-month national strike against President Hugo Chavez after he had eluded Venezuelan authorities for three weeks.

Union boss Carlos Ortega arrived at the Costa Rican Embassy here in the Venezuelan capital late Thursday and was granted diplomatic asylum for "humanitarian reasons," the embassy said in a statement.

Ortega, who is president of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, went into hiding Feb. 20 after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

He is wanted on charges of treason, civil rebellion and incitement for his role in the devastating strike that sought to force Chavez to resign or hold early elections.

"That shows the character of those criminals" who organized the strike, Chavez said Friday of Ortega's asylum bid. "But the most important thing is not to worry about such trifles."

The Venezuelan government said Ortega will be guaranteed safe passage to Costa Rica once full political asylum has been granted.

Until that is arranged, the burly labor leader must sleep at the embassy.

Ricardo Lizano, Costa Rica's ambassador to Venezuela, said relations between the two countries are "extraordinarily good" and won't be affected by the decision to grant Ortega asylum.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Costa Rican Embassy to show their support for Ortega.

Together with business federation leader Carlos Fernandez and oil executive Juan Fernandez, Ortega directed the national strike.

They made nightly television appearances denouncing Chavez as a tyrant and his government as incompetent.

Ortega's colleagues said that the labor leader feared for his personal safety and that seeking asylum was his only option. Many opposition leaders accuse the government of leading a witch hunt against them.

Carlos Fernandez was arrested at gunpoint by secret police last month at a restaurant.

A judge later struck down a treason charge against Fernandez and ordered him held under house arrest while investigations continue.

Juan Fernandez narrowly escaped arrest Feb. 8 after he made a surprise appearance at an anti-government rally.

Federal agents who arrived on the scene used tear gas and fired shots in the air to disperse protesters who attacked their vehicles while Fernandez escaped.

Seven more former executives of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, are wanted by authorities for their role in the strike.

Thousands of businesses shut down throughout December and January, and the all-important oil industry was brought to a virtual halt.

The strike cost Venezuela about $6 billion, by government estimates.

But with Chavez refusing to budge and businesses pushed to the brink of bankruptcy, the strike was called off in all sectors except the oil industry, which the government has struggled to bring under its control.

Last year, Pedro Carmona, who spearheaded a brief coup against Chavez and installed himself as president of Venezuela, was granted asylum by Colombia after escaping house arrest in Caracas.

Also last year, dissident navy Rear Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo sought refuge in El Salvador for his role in the coup.

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