Venezuela Opposition Agrees to Talks as Unrest Rocks Caracas
Venezuela’s opposition agreed to meet tomorrow with President Nicolas Maduro as anti-government protesters and security forces clashed in Caracas for an 11th straight night.
Governor Henrique Capriles, standing alongside the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, said at a rally yesterday he would agree to hold talks with Maduro at the presidential palace on Feb. 24. The two-time presidential hopeful two days prior said he wouldn’t be forced into dialog after Maduro warned there would be legal consequences to missing the meeting.
“We don’t want confrontation, we want solutions,” Capriles, who lost to Maduro in April elections by the narrowest margin in 45 years, said at the rally in Caracas. “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.”
Anti-government demonstrations are in their second week after Lopez’s Voluntad Popular party on Feb. 12 organized marches to speak out against rising crime, the world’s fastest inflation and shortages of everything from milk to medicine. The protests have turned violent on a nightly basis as police clash with students, resulting in at least eight deaths.
While they are from different parties within the opposition alliance, Capriles and Lopez are showing a united front as they try to diffuse violent protests that neither the opposition nor government can completely control, Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said in an e-mailed response to questions last night.
“If they can reach an accord to have some measure of cooperation, then both sides will have achieved something,” he wrote about talks between the opposition and government. “But it is unclear where they will lead. It is wise to keep expectations in check. There is so much rancor and mistrust between both sides.”
Maduro, the hand-picked successor of Hugo Chavez who died in March after 14 years in power, yesterday vowed to protect his government and keep National Guard troops out in force. Speaking before supporters in Caracas who chanted for him to maintain a “strong hand,” Maduro said he wouldn’t allow protesters to blockade streets.
In what has become a nightly occurrence, the sound of detonations and smell of tear gas yesterday evening filled the streets of Altamira, a residential neighborhood in the Chacao municipality of Caracas that is a focal point of demonstrations. Twenty-five people in Chacao were being treated for injuries last night, Mayor Ramon Muchacho wrote on his Twitter page.
U.S. President Barack Obama, on a visit to Mexico Feb. 19, condemned the violence in Venezuela. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement late Feb. 21 urged Maduro’s government to ends its efforts to “stifle dissent.”
“The Venezuelan government has confronted peaceful protesters with force and in some cases with armed vigilantes claiming to support the government,” Kerry said. “This is not how democracies behave.”
Maduro yesterday called Kerry’s statement “insolent” and an “aggression,” adding that he remains willing to exchange ambassadors.
“What is unacceptable is for you to stick your nose in Venezuela’s sovereignty, Kerry,” Maduro said on state television. “Yankee go home!”
“I’m going to keep protecting the Venezuelan people with the National Guard,” Maduro said. “If fascism eliminates me, I authorize you to take to the streets to defend the homeland.”
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.
Capriles made no promises to call for a halt to marches, instead demanding the government free student protesters under police custody as well as Lopez, who is being held on charges of inciting violence. He also demanded a chance to address the nation on television after Maduro took Colombian TV channel NTN24 off the air and revoked credentials of CNN journalists.
“As long as this government doesn’t listen and offer solutions, the people will stay in the streets,” Capriles said. “Nicolas, if you want to get in the ring and put on the gloves, you’re going to have to deal with millions of Venezuelans in the streets. Make no mistake, we love peace but we will never get on our knees.”
Capriles urged supporters not to demonstrate at night and asked them not to blockade streets.
Struggling to rein in 56 percent inflation and a shortage of basic goods and medicine, Maduro last 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.
Maduro signed on Feb. 18 a currency law he said would boost the supply of dollars in the $380 billion economy, allowing importers to purchase more goods and alleviate shortages at an exchange rate weaker than the official rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar. On the black market, the bolivar trades at a rate of about 88 per dollar.
The central bank’s scarcity index last month rose to a record 28 percent, meaning that more than one in four basic goods was out of stock at any given time.
Economic growth will slow this year to 0.5 percent from an estimated 1.2 percent in 2013, in both instances falling short of the Latin American average, according to analysts polled by Bloomberg. Amid the political turmoil, Venezuelan bonds have posted the biggest losses in emerging markets this year of 10.6 percent, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBIG+ index.
“Venezuela is headed toward an economic debacle and the government is trying to cover it up by repressing the protests,” Capriles said. “We are going to convert these protests into the biggest social movement in the history of Venezuela.”
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