CARACAS — Opponents of Venezuela’s leftist government prepared for a mass protest rally in Caracas Saturday, one day after President Nicolas Maduro issued a surprise call for talks with the United States.
At least nine people have been killed, 104 injured and 137 arrested in weeks of street demonstrations that begin peacefully and often turn violent, according to government figures.
Pro-government “Chavista women” are also scheduled to march “against fascism” on Saturday in Caracas. While pro- and anti-government groups will march in a different part of town, violence could erupt if they meet at any point.
Henrique Capriles, governor of Miranda state and the main opposition leader, has called on marchers to focus on demanding that authorities disarm pro-government “collectives” blamed for attacking demonstrators.
Maduro, who denies any links to the armed groups, says the protests are part of a “coup d’etat in development” instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.
The protests began on February 2 in the western city of San Cristobal led 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, the late Hugo Chavez the economy has tailspinned, street crime is out of control, and corruption is widespread.
Maduro’s government warned it would cut off gasoline supplies to restless areas.
Capriles, who lost last year’s presidential election to Maduro by a razor-thin margin, is again in the limelight following the Tuesday arrest of another opposition leader, 42 year-old Leopoldo Lopez, on charges of instigating violence, property damage and criminal association.
On Friday, Maduro challenged Obama to meet him for talks. “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 with foreign reporters.
Caracas and Washington have not exchanged ambassadors since their respective envoys were withdrawn in 2010. Venezuela has expelled eight US diplomats over the past year, including three on February 16.
Oil-rich Venezuela’s main customer for its key export is the United States, yet Venezuela’s relations with the United States, long strained under Chavez, have worsened under Maduro.
Maduro proposed to restore ties to the ambassadorial level and said he had given his foreign minister “special powers” to handle bilateral dialogue.
US Secretary of State John Kerry late Friday chastised Caracas for its crackdown and 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.
He criticized Venezuela’s arrest of protesting students and a key opposition figure, as well as its crackdown on the freedoms of expression and assembly.
“This is not how democracies behave,” Kerry said.
In his statement, Kerry urged the government to release jailed opposition members and launch a “genuine” dialogue.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said during a visit to Nicaragua on Friday that his government was “open to dialogue” with the opposition, but gave no timeline.
Obama on Wednesday called on Venezuela’s leftist government to address the “legitimate grievances” of its people — comments that Maduro dismissed as US meddling in Venezuelan affairs.
Washington has also expressed concern over the jailing of Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard-educated economist, and insisted that any charges against him be handled in an “impartial and transparent” manner.
– ‘We love the American people’ –
In a move filled with anti-US sentiment, Maduro has threatened to block US broadcaster CNN, accusing the network of inciting “civil war”.
CNN said several of its journalists working in Venezuela, on both Spanish-language and English-language programs, had seen their press credentials revoked or refused.
On Friday Maduro claimed that the US intelligence services “have given a green light for the overthrow” of the Venezuelan government.
Yet at the same press conference Maduro called on Obama to appoint a negotiator for bilateral talks.
“What we want is peace with the United States, respect, cooperation,” Maduro said.
“We love the American people, we admire their culture, their music.”