CARACAS, Venezuela -- In a fiery speech before tens of thousands, President Hugo Chávez alleged the U.S. was planning to sabotage a vote Sunday on proposed constitutional changes and threatened to cut off oil shipments if Washington did so.
It was one of a string of threats issued by Mr. Chávez two days before the country votes on extensive constitutional changes that if approved would give the populist president enormous powers and set the legal framework for a Cuba-like socialist state. He also threatened to nationalize Spanish-owned banks here if King Juan Carlos doesn't apologize for telling the Venezuelan president to "shut up" last month during a conference of Latin American heads of state.
Mr. Chávez also told the army and oil workers to immediately take up positions to guard oil facilities ahead of the referendum Sunday.
The threats underscore the increasing tension in Venezuela in what is expected to be a close vote on Mr. Chávez' proposed constitutional overhauls. In the speech Friday, Mr. Chavez repeatedly alleged the opposition wouldn't accept unfavorable election results as part of a U.S. plan to get him out of power. "They are making plans to turn Venezuela into chaos," he said. "We won't allow it."
U.S. officials in Washington dismissed any suggestion that the U.S. plans to meddle in the Venezuelan electoral process.
"We reject and are disappointed by the allegations that the U.S. would be involved in any type of conspiracy to affect the outcome of the referendum," said Heide Bronke, a State Department spokeswoman.
Analysts say any move to cut off oil supplies to the U.S. is highly unlikely. Mr. Chávez has made many similar threats in the past. But cutting off oil shipments to the U.S., by far Venezuela's largest customer, would cause Venezuela much more damage than the U.S., since the only refineries that are equipped to refine Venezuela's heavy, sulfur-laden crude are in the U.S.
That said, any disruption of that supply would have a big effect on U.S. gasoline prices and would rattle an already-skittish international oil market.
A brief disruption of supplies from Canada on Wednesday after a pipeline explosion sent benchmark crude prices soaring by $4 within hours, though they quickly subsided.
An interruption from Venezuela, which ships about 1.3 million barrels of oil and other petroleum products day to the U.S., would almost certainly have a bigger price impact.
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