Venezuela's Maduro calls for talks to defuse mass protests

AFP , Monday 24 Feb 2014

Anti-government protestors fill a major avenue in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Venezuela's president on Sunday called for crisis talks in an attempt to defuse weeks of often deadly anti-government protests that have brought the biggest challenge yet to his regime.

At least 10 people have been killed and scores wounded in daily anti-government demos that began on February 4.

The leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro is still reeling from a massive protest march in Caracas Saturday called for by opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Hundreds of thousands met to vent their anger against the government, upset over the soaring crime rate, high inflation, a shortage of food and commodities, and alleged official involvement in thuggish pro-government armed gangs.

At least 25 people were injured in late Saturday clashes with security forces that were some of the most serious to date.

Outside the presidential palace on Sunday, Maduro called for "a national peace conference" to be held Wednesday "with all social, political, union and religious groups."

Maduro also said he would ask the National Assembly to form a Truth Commission to look into the protests, which he claims are an attempt to "justify foreign intervention in Venezuela," in an interview on the Telesur TV network.

Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, is grappling with his biggest crisis since he was narrowly elected president in April 2013. He became leader of Venezuela's "Bolivarian Revolution" following the death early last year of leftist icon Hugo Chavez.

The 'Chavista' administration can still count on core support among the country's working class, and Maduro held counter rallies both Saturday and Sunday in the capital.

On Sunday, groups of elderly people marched to show their support for the socialist regime, in power since 1999.

Pro-government demonstrators dressed in red, waved Venezuelan flags and pro-Maduro banners, and protested what they called "fascist violence" by student opposition.

"That's enough youth violence. This is a country of peace. We want a future of peace," Cristina Marcos, 60, told reporters during a rally that began in the morning and headed to the Miraflores Palace, where the president spoke.

The daily anti-government protests, which began in the western city of San Cristobal led by students angry over the soaring crime rate, have increasingly been accompanied by violence.

In Caracas there have been incidents of men on pick-up trucks, escorted by motorbikes, intimidating protesters.

Maduro who denies any links to armed pro-government groups, insists the protests are part of a coup d'etat plot instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

Dozens of people, including Leopoldo Lopez -- an opposition leader openly calling for Maduro's ouster -- have been arrested or wounded.

Of 25 people hurt in the late Saturday unrest, 14 were wounded from birdshot before protesters were dispersed using gas and birdshot, the mayor of Caracas's posh Chacao municipality said.

The talks are an attempt to blunt the government's negative portrayal as it attempts to ride out the protests, said political analyst John Magdaleno.

"The government has seen how high the public opinion price is at home and abroad for his security forces' actions," Magdaleno told AFP. "With these crisis talks, he (Maduro) is looking for some kind of appeasement."

Participation by longtime opposition leader Capriles in the talks could put the former presidential candidate in a position to benefit -- if the talks pan out.

Capriles "could be the sort of middle ground, after Leopoldo Lopez pushed for an end to Maduro's government," Magdaleno opined.

Maduro might see Capriles, who is governor of Miranda state, at a gathering of governors in Caracas on Monday.

Magdaleno however was skeptical that the talks would succeed or that the street protests will lead to Maduro's resignation.

On Sunday Maduro ordered the arrest of retired general Angel Vivas, saying he has trained radicals in the protests to battle police.

Vivas, a harsh critic of Maduro and what he calls "Cuban infiltration" of Venezuela's armed forces, said on Twitter he was resisting arrest, and climbed onto his rooftop with a weapon when police arrived to detain him. They left empty handed.

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