Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro heard from his critics and supporters at a “peace conference” in Caracas that the main political opposition group decided to skip following two weeks of protests that have killed 14 people.
“Our country is not well, Mr. President,” Jorge Roig, head of the country’s main federation of business chambers, said to Maduro today at the event broadcast to the nation. “We have economic indicators that show us with one of the highest inflation rates in the world, with enormous shortages.”
Other participants at the event include billionaire beverage magnate Lorenzo Mendoza, who Maduro greeted at the start of the summit in Venezuela’s Presidential Palace. The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable said in a statement that any talks must be predicated on an agenda agreed upon in advance and the participation of a third party.
Roig, who urged Maduro to listen to a broader range of voices in Venezuela, went on to praise the president for the tone of the meeting, saying the business community wanted to help society and adding “let’s turn the page.”
Maduro has argued that his government is gaining support as daily demonstrations begin to alienate voters. He declared tomorrow and Feb. 28 national holidays, in addition to days off March 3-4, for the annual Carnival festival. That didn’t deter student protesters from announcing another rally tomorrow after opposition leader Maria Corina Machado led a silent march of women in Caracas today and agricultural workers marched to support Maduro.
“We can’t wait for events to escalate, so that we don’t end up calling to meet and talk under circumstances of great national commotion,” Maduro said today. “No, we must act early.”
Demonstrators protesting shortages of basic goods, 56 percent inflation and rising crime have confronted armed pro-government groups and National Guard troops nightly in Caracas since Feb. 12.
Mendoza, the chief executive officer of Empresas Polar SA, has faced criticism from Maduro and his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, who both said he was partly to blame for shortages in a country with the world’s biggest oil reserves. On the company’s Twitter page today, Polar said it was willing to undertake actions to “contribute to national production and the well-being of the Venezuelan people.”
“Shortages are the result of attacks against industry, expropriations, freezing of prices and now restrictions on currency purchases,” the company, which produces everything from beer to corn flour and has a joint venture with PepsiCo Inc., said.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon today urged calm in Venezuela and called for the protection of human rights. Panama President Ricardo Martinelli this week said he asked the Organization of American States to hold a meeting of foreign ministers on the Venezuelan crisis and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter expressed concern about the violence.
While saying opposition groups are free to protest, Maduro has accused them of conducting a slow-motion coup d’etat. The government last week arrested opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on charges of inciting violence.
The public prosecutor has arrested eight officers from the intelligence police, known as Sebin, over the murder of two people during protests on Feb. 12.
In an effort to mitigate record shortages of everything from imported food to medicine, Venezuela this week published rules allowing companies and individuals to buy and sell U.S. dollars in a regulated market.
Previously, the central bank was the sole supplier of greenbacks, and as foreign reserves fell, less foreign currency was made available to pay for imports.
Venezuela’s benchmark dollar bonds due in 2027 fell 0.30 cent on the dollar to 69.83 cents today, ending a five-day rally. The yield rose seven basis points to 14.37 percent. Bank of America Corp. and Barclays Plc. upgraded the country’s bonds to overweight this week, citing the possibility of higher fuel prices and the new dollar sales.
“We have profound differences with your economic system and your political systems but democracy, thank God, lets us evaluate these differences,” Roig said.