Maduro Offers Opposition New Talks as He Seeks U.S. Ties

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called for a “peace conference” tomorrow as street protests head toward their third week and the government nominated an ambassador to the U.S. following a four-year absence.

Maduro called on governors and mayors to join lawmakers, students, women, unionists, intellectuals, painters and clergy, among other groups, to sign an agreement condemning violence. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who skipped a meeting of regional governors with the president yesterday, is evaluating the invitation, his spokeswoman Ana Maria Fernandez said in a text message today.

Demonstrators protesting shortages of basic goods, the world’s fastest inflation and rising crime have confronted armed pro-government groups and National Guard troops nightly in Caracas since Feb. 12. Panama President Ricardo Martinelli, who Maduro says opposes his government, today said he asked the Organization of American States to hold a meeting of foreign ministers on the Venezuelan crisis.

While saying opposition groups are free to protest, Maduro has also accused them of conducting a slow-motion coup d’etat. Capriles pulled out of yesterday’s talks while demanding the government free opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was imprisoned last week on charges of inciting violence.

Lopez’s Wife

“How do I go amid the repression, amid the violation of human rights,” Capriles, a two-time presidential hopeful and current Miranda state governor, told reporters in Caracas yesterday. “The presidential palace is not the place for dialog in the country.”

Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori de Lopez, said today that her husband is being treated respectfully in a military prison outside Caracas and she reiterated calls for peaceful protests.

“We have to resist, we have to have strength and faith,” she said in an interview on the Venevision television network.

Protesters began re-building barricades today in the Chacao municipality of eastern Caracas, the heart of the protests, after commuters cleared trash bags and debris from streets on the way to work, Mayor Ramon Muchacho said in a post on his Twitter account.

Expelled Diplomats

Venezuela today nominated Maximilien Arvelaiz to be the country’s first ambassador to the U.S. since 2010, when then President Hugo Chavez refused to accept the State Department’s nominee for ambassador in Caracas. The move comes after Venezuela expelled three U.S. diplomats this month for allegedly aiding groups involved in the protests. The U.S. responded by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters today.

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the nomination of Arvelaiz, a former ambassador to Brazil, was meant to “establish political relations at the highest level that will contribute to peace.”

“If the U.S. accepts the nomination, it signals a softening of attitudes and opens the way for the U.S. to return its ambassador,” Robert Loftis, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

The U.S. is Venezuela’s biggest trading partner and is the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and Bloomberg Industries.

Gas Prices

The president also reopened debate on raising the cheapest gasoline prices in the world yesterday, saying that a portion of earnings from a “fair” price could go to provincial governments.

Maduro said 712 people have been detained in the two-week-old protests, with all but 48 released. Another protester died last night in Tachira’s capital, San Cristobal, bringing the number of deaths to 14, Mayor Daniel Ceballos said on his Twitter account.

Tachira state Governor Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, a member of Maduro’s party, broke with the government in a radio interview yesterday, defending students’ rights to protest and saying the government should free Lopez.

In an effort to mitigate record shortages of everything from imported food to medicine, Venezuela yesterday 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 jumped 2.46 cents on the dollar to 70.12 cents at 4:33 p.m. in New York, extending gains to a fifth day. The yield fell 56 basis points to 14.30 percent after Bank of America Corp. upgraded the country’s bonds to overweight this morning, citing the possibility of higher fuel prices and the new dollar sales.

“I know the problems are there and I know we will get through them,” Maduro said. “I ask for support.”