Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro vowed to protect his government and keep National Guard troops in the streets as pro-government and opposition groups rallied in Caracas in the 11th day of unrest in the capital.
“I’m going to keep protecting the Venezuelan people with the National Guard,” Maduro said before supporters at the presidential palace in Caracas today. “If fascism eliminates me, I authorize you to take to the streets to defend the homeland.”
Maduro, who spoke shortly after opposition leaders including Governor Henrique Capriles rallied in eastern Caracas, said he would not permit protesters to blockade streets and remained willing to exchange ambassadors with the U.S. Capriles, who in April lost the presidential election by the thinnest margin in 45 years, today said he would accept an invitation by Maduro to hold talks Feb. 24.
Struggling to rein in 56 percent inflation and a shortage of basic goods and medicines, Maduro this week announced plans to import $1 billion in food and medicine and to unveil a new currency auction system designed to help companies and individuals have more access to dollars.
U.S. President Barack Obama, on a visit to Mexico Feb. 19, condemned the violence in Venezuela. His secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a statement last night accusing Maduro’s government of using force against peaceful protesters.
“I’ve never seen another foreign ministry send a statement at 10:30 p.m. in the night,” Maduro said. “Obama, do you want to go down in history as George W. Bush and Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter?”
Crowds of government supporters dressed in red chanted “strong hand” as Maduro spoke today. Loud bangs could be heard this evening in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas that has become a focal point of demonstrations.
Speaking alongside the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Capriles earlier today asked supporters to continue with peaceful protests and stay off the streets at night.
Caracas mayor and opposition leader Antonio Ledezma said in a post on his Twitter account that a “sea of people, of students, mothers and workers” were marching in Caracas for “liberty.”
At least eight people have died since the unrest started Feb. 12, the government said yesterday. A 23-year-old student died from gunshot wounds received during a Feb. 19 protest in Carabobo state, El Universal newspaper reported today, citing members of her family.
“The government of Nicolas Maduro that we are seeing is a historic error, but we can’t get out of this mistake by making another one,” Capriles said today. “As long as this government doesn’t listen and offer solutions, the people will stay in the streets.”
Capriles demanded the government free Lopez and said he wants a chance to address the nation when he meets with Maduro.
The president called on a rally of pro-government motorcyclists on Feb. 24, scheduled a “peace conference” for Feb. 26 and declared Feb. 27 a national holiday.
“Venezuela is not the Ukraine. Fascism and violence won’t prevail here,” Maduro’s wife Cilia Flores said at the rally in reference to protests in the eastern European country that resulted in the ouster of its president.
Some students arrested during protests in Venezuela say they were beaten and had gasoline poured on them by National Guard, newspaper El Nacional reported, citing students and their lawyers. Maduro told reporters yesterday his government respects human rights and would probe reports of violence.
“The government is acting outside of the constitution and we came here today to demand that the repression and torture stop,” Capriles said today.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nathan Crooks in Caracas at firstname.lastname@example.org
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