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Protesting 24/7 in Venezuela?

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CARACAS, Venezuela — Opponents of President Hugo Chavez threatened round-the-clock protests if the Supreme Court rules against a referendum on Chavez's rule. As their strike dragged into its seventh week, a group of regional leaders agreed to help seek a resolution.

Opposition leaders in November presented Venezuelan election authorities a petition with 2 million signatures demanding a Feb. 2 plebiscite. The referendum is nonbinding, but strike leaders believe Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, would be so embarrassed by its outcome he would voluntarily step down.

"There will be no other recourse than taking the streets, remaining in the streets 24 hours a day," if the court rules against the referendum, opposition governor Enrique Mendoza said on Wednesday.

Chavez headed to the United States on Thursday to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan has said he will stress the importance of using "constitutional and democratic means" to resolve Venezuela's standoff.

Chavez has called on high court magistrates to reject the referendum as unconstitutional. Venezuela's constitution allows citizens to petition for a binding referendum halfway through a six-year presidential term — in Chavez's case, August.

Meanwhile, representatives from the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Spain and Portugal agreed Wednesday to create a forum known as "Group of Friends of Venezuela" to seek solutions for the strike.

"We are seeking a solution that is peaceful, constitutional, democratic and electoral," Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria said after the meeting in Quito, Ecuador.

The U.S. State Department has voiced support for Gaviria's mediation mission on an almost daily basis and expressed backing for the new group.

"We look forward to being a part of this group and to beginning its important work," State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said Wednesday.

While allies and adversaries of Chavez await a possible high court ruling, economic ills in this South American nation continue as a seven-week-old strike to force the president's ouster drags on.

Venezuela's bolivar currency hit a new low on Wednesday closing at 1,716 to the dollar, down 6 percent from Tuesday. Citizens lined up at banks and exchange houses to buy dollars.

The strike has reduced oil exports to a trickle, depriving the government of half its income.

Trying to calm fears of an economic crash, the government denied speculation that it plans to devalue the bolivar so it can balance its $25 billion budget. Most government income is in dollars, and a weaker bolivar would increase its domestic spending power.

Venezuela has acknowledged the oil strike has cost $4 billion so far.

Opposition governors have warned they won't be able to pay public servants at the end of the month if the government doesn't transfer the necessary funds. Roughly one out of every sixteen Venezuelans is employed by the state.

The Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, or VenAmCham, issued a communique Wednesday urging the government to tone down rhetoric targeting the business sector.

Chavez has recently threatened to nationalize banks joining the strike and use soldiers to seize food production plants.

The chamber "deplores recent comments by the national executive about institutions within the nation's financial sector," read the statement.

Some 45,000 bank employees joined the strike for two days last week. On Monday, banks returned to a restricted schedule, opening their doors for three hours.

Venezuelans are coping with the effects of the strike. They wait in long lines at gas stations and banks while staples such as fresh milk and flour remain scarce. Blackouts occurred in the central states of Lara, Yaracuy and Portuguesa late Wednesday, leaving residents without electricity for over two hours.