Mon, Mar 03, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Jailed Venezuelan protest leader mocks call for talks

‘TACTICAL RETREAT’:Leopoldo Lopez said Maduro’s offer of talks was an effort to buy time to repress protests, as both sides dueled over whether the protests have died out

Reuters, CARACAS

A reveler dressed as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro performs during the carnival parade in Barranquilla, Colombia, on Saturday.

Photo: AFP

Jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez scoffed on Friday at Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s efforts to open talks with opponents and businessman after a month of demonstrations and violence that have killed at least 17 people.

Maduro, 51, seems to have weathered the worst of an explosion of protests against his socialist government that exposed deep discontent with economic problems and brought the nation’s worst unrest in a decade.

Some students are still setting up roadblocks and clashing with police in Caracas and Tachira State, but the number of protesters has dropped, and many Venezuelans have begun heading for the beach to enjoy a long weekend for carnival celebrations.

To try to ease the crisis further, Maduro has been holding talks with business and church leaders and some anti-government politicians, though the main opposition figures, such as two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, have boycotted them.

Lopez, a hardline opposition leader who faces charges of fomenting the violence, said Maduro’s offer of dialogue was a hypocritical move to try to deflate the protests while failing to address the deep-seated problems behind them.

“‘The dialogue’ is a tactical retreat as a result of the pressure in the streets. It’s not real conviction,” Lopez said in a message from Ramo Verde military prison given to his wife, who tweeted it from his account, @leopoldolopez.

“Maduro’s dialogue is: ‘Come to Miraflores [presidential palace] and while I speak to the nation, I pursue, kill and repress in the streets,’” Lopez said.

More than 250 people have been hurt in the unrest and another 500 or so arrested, authorities say.

Venezuela’s state prosecutor says 17 people have died, the latest victim shot while trying to dismantle a barricade in Carabobo state.

Most of the 55 people still behind bars are protesters, but seven intelligence agents and security officials have also been detained over the shooting of two people in downtown Caracas after a Feb. 12 rally that sparked the worst trouble.

On Friday, Maduro again invited opposition leaders to discussions, in public or private.

“The country would benefit if we show our faces and talk, with mutual respect,” he said.

The president says about 50 people have died in total due to the opposition protests, including indirectly linked cases, such as people unable to reach hospitals due to blocked roads.

The worst of the trouble has hit Tachira State. Overnight, National Guard troops moved in to clear many of the barricades that had been blocking side streets in the volatile state capital, San Cristobal.

Activity picked up there on Friday, with more businesses open and more traffic on roads that had been deserted for most of the week.

“Each time they take down the barricades, we’ll put them up again,” said Zulay Mendez, 53, a health worker in a downtown plaza where several hundred people met for a citizens’ assembly. “We’re sure we’re on the right side of history. There’s no Carnival celebrations because there is nothing to celebrate.”

With the nation essentially on holiday until Thursday, students have called for a major march in Caracas yesterday.

Maduro brought forward the long weekend for Carnival, then Wednesday will see national commemorations for the anniversary of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s death.

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