Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is readying crisis talks to try to defuse a deadly wave of protests that have brought the biggest challenge yet to his government.
“This is a national peace conference I am calling for Wednesday with all social, political, union and religious groups,” Maduro told supporters outside the presidential palace.
Groups of mainly elderly people marched on Sunday in downtown Caracas in support of Maduro, a day after Venezuela’s largest demonstrations in weeks of escalating protests left 25 people injured.
Maduro is grappling with the biggest crisis of his government since narrowly being elected last year after the death of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, with at least 10 people killed since protests erupted on Feb. 4.
Hundreds of thousands of pro and anti-government protesters had hit the streets of the capital on Saturday, leading to nighttime clashes with security forces that were some of the most serious to date.
Student and opposition demonstrators are campaigning over bleak economic prospects, including a shortage of food and commodities, repression by police and a dire job market.
Dozens of people, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, have been arrested or wounded.
While the dialogue has no precedent in Maduro’s term, political analyst John Madgaleno said participation by longtime opposition leader Henrique Capriles could put the former presidential candidate in a position to benefit — if the talks pan out.
Pro-government demonstrators on Sunday dressed in red — the color of the socialist administration — held Venezuelan flags and pro-Maduro banners, protesting 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 at the Plaza Bolivar and headed toward the Miraflores Palace, where the president spoke.
Competing mass rallies in the capital are laying bare a chasm between those who support Maduro and those who oppose him in an oil-rich country that, despite having the world’s largest proven reserves, is grappling with basic goods shortages, rampant inflation and violent crime.
Of the 25 people hurt in the late-night unrest in Caracas’ posh Chacao municipality, 14 were wounded from birdshot before protesters were dispersed using gas and birdshot, the Chacao mayor said.
Now the government is scrambling to try to blunt what it sees as international and social media portrayals of the elected government as a bad guy due to its security forces’ behavior with demonstrators, analysts say.
Maduro insists the protests are part of a “coup d’etat in development” instigated by Washington and conservative former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.
On Saturday, Maduro unveiled the new peace initiative — a week after a national public safety strategy he announced was overtaken by the protests, and also ordered the arrest of a retired general, Angel Vivas — a harsh critic of Maduro and what he calls “Cuban infiltration” of Venezuela’s armed forces — saying he had ties to the violence that marred the protests.
Maduro claims that Vivas trained radicals to use wires on Caracas streets; a man’s head was severed by one such wire on Friday.
Vivas said on Twitter he was resisting arrest and on Sunday became the latest rally cry for opposition protesters after he engaged in an armed standoff with security forces.
The retired general sported a flak jacket, assault rifle and handgun as he defiantly addressed dozens of neighbors from the balcony of his home in eastern Caracas.
“I’m not going to surrender,” the 57-year-old Vivas yelled to a crowd of cheering followers.
Supporters rushed to Vivas’ defense after he announced to his 100,000-plus followers on Twitter that a group of “Cuban and Venezuelan henchmen” had come looking for him. The officers withdrew after the crowd built barricades outside Vivas’ house. Vivas’ lawyer said they did not have an arrest order.