Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro sought to hold a “peace conference” yesterday in an attempt to end three weeks of at times deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich, but deeply divided country.
However, Miranda State Governor and opposition leader Henrique Capriles is not attending, saying he is tired of what he calls the government’s lies and police repression against student protesters.
Capriles was narrowly defeated by Maduro in elections 11 months ago to succeed late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Maduro’s gathering aims to bring together political, social and religious figures, but he has given no details on who has committed to taking part.
The protests have left at least 14 people dead and raised alarm in South America, the US and Europe.
The country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves has been rocked by protests over rampant crime, runaway inflation, corruption and other woes since Feb. 4.
Amid worsening bilateral ties, Washington on Tuesday announced the tit-for-tat expulsions of three Venezuelan diplomats from the US.
The US Department of State said the Venezuelan diplomats had 48 hours to leave the country.
The move answered Caracas’ expulsions a week ago of three US diplomats who Maduro claimed had met with student protest leaders.
However, on Monday, he said he would name a new ambassador to Washington because “Americans think we are killing each other” and because he wants to improve dialogue with the US.
US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington had seen reports about Maduro’s intention, “but Venezuela also needs to show seriousness for us to be able to move forward, and recent actions, including expelling three of our diplomats, continue to make that difficult.”
The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, reflecting the bad blood that has prevailed between the two trade partners since Chavez came to power in 1999.
The atmosphere in Caracas was calmer on Tuesday after a night of sporadic clashes, although in some middle-class neighborhoods streets were still partially blocked by barriers of rubble and garbage.
Small groups of student protesters also marched toward the Cuban embassy, another target of the opposition’s ire.
“Venezuelans who don’t protest, don’t get out of this. Join us,” a demonstrator’s banner read.
Yet by midday, just dozens of people had joined the rally, suggesting an easing up of pressure on the eve of the national dialogue.
In addition to the talks, Maduro — Chavez’s handpicked successor — also said he would ask the Venezuelan National Assembly to form a “Truth Commission” to look into the protests, which he claims are an attempt to “justify foreign intervention in Venezuela” and a coup d’etat in the making.