Venezuela braces for more protests as president issues calls for talks with US


Sun, Feb 23, 2014 - Page 1

Opponents of Venezuela’s leftist government prepared for a mass protest rally in Caracas yesterday, one day after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro issued a surprise call for talks with the US.

At least nine people have been killed, 104 injured and 137 arrested in weeks of street demonstrations that begin peacefully and often turn violent, government figures show.

Pro-government “Chavista women” were also to march “against fascism” yesterday in Caracas.

Miranda State Governor and main opposition leader Henrique Capriles has called on marchers to focus on demanding that authorities disarm pro-government “collectives” blamed for attacks on demonstrators.

Maduro, who denies any links to the armed groups, says the protests are part of a “coup d’etat in development” started by the US and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

The protests began on Feb. 2 in the city of San Cristobal by students angry over the soaring crime rate. Protests quickly spread to Caracas and other major cities, and intensified over the past two weeks.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but under Maduro and his predecessor, late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the economy has gone into a tailspin, street crime is out of control and corruption is widespread.

In response to the unrest,Caracas on Friday warned that it would cut off gasoline supplies to violence-hit areas and told opposition governors to take part in talks he called for next week or face “consequences.”

Although accusing the US and leaders in Colombia and Panama for trying to toppling his government, Maduro then said he wanted to have talks with US President Barack Obama and would consider exchanging ambassadors with the US in a bid to improve ties

“I call a dialogue with you, President Obama ... between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government,” he said.

“Accept the challenge and we will start a high-level dialogue and put the truth on the table,” Maduro told a news conference.

“What we want is peace with the United States, respect, cooperation,” Maduro said. “We love the American people, we admire their culture, their music.”

Maduro spoke hours after the government revoked the accreditation for seven CNN journalists.

At the press conference, he threatened to block CNN for inciting “civil war” and claimed that the US intelligence services “have given a green light for the overthrow” of the Venezuelan government.

Maduro accused the network of misreporting the political crisis, a week after taking Colombian TV channel NTN24 off the air following its coverage of the demonstrations.

US Secretary of State John Kerry late on Friday chastised Caracas for its crackdown, but said nothing about the call for direct talks.

“The government’s use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures ... is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence,” Kerry said in a statement. “This is not how democracies behave.”