Maduro Urges Negotiations as Venezuela Death Toll Rises

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro said today he is open to meeting with student protesters and opposition leaders as the death toll from more than two weeks of demonstrations rose.

“The country would gain if we met and talked, with respect as always,” Maduro said in a nationwide address after calling on two-time presidential hopeful Henrique Capriles to negotiate. “We are inviting actors, artists, private and public entities, opposition leaders, students, governors, mayors the Catholic Church and whoever wants to participate to join with us in the peace process.”

Maduro spoke after the opposition alliance, which has boycotted two meetings with the president, said it would negotiate only when he shows respect and offers an agenda worked out with mediators. The opposition alliance is calling for a nationwide show of support tomorrow from motorists and bikers as it strives to keep demonstrations alive, while the government is organizing a salsa concert in Caracas today to promote peace.

Maduro has attempted to defuse discontent over inflation, crime and shortages of goods by expanding the annual Carnival festivities by two days to include yesterday and today, in addition to the scheduled days off on March 3-4. Seventeen people have been killed since protests erupted in Caracas on Feb. 12, Public Prosecutor Luisa Ortega said today.

‘Economic Crisis’

“The economic crisis continues and these protests are not going away, though they will vary in intensity,” Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political analyst at consultancy IHS Global Insight who spent two weeks with the protesters, said by telephone from London.

Too many deaths have occurred for the situation to be defused by a week’s break, said Luis Vicente Leon, director of Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis. The government will have to meet some of the opposition’s demands and give the private sector a say in economic policy, he said.

The intersections at Plaza Altamira in eastern Caracas, the hub of the protests in the capital, are closed, Mayor Ramon Muchacho wrote on his Twitter account. The opposition also held marches in the cities of Maracaibo and Merida, student leader Gaby Arellano wrote on Twitter.

Maria Fernanda Riego, an economics student at a rally in Caracas yesterday, said the appeal of the protests may be waning outside the middle classes.

‘Keep Fighting’

“We will keep fighting, but the majority might not,” she said. “Venezuelans are very fond of their holidays and this long Carnival is quite a temptation.”

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, yesterday introduced a resolution “deploring” the violence in Venezuela and urged President Barack Obama to impose sanctions, visa revocations and asset freezing, according to the text of an e-mailed statement.

Maduro, 51, proposed a “new phase” in relations with the country’s biggest trading partner Feb. 26 after nominating the first ambassador to Washington in four years.

The president heard from both critics and supporters at a 4 1/2-hour-long “peace conference” in Caracas on Feb. 26 that the main political opposition group skipped.

‘Not Well’

“Our country is not well, Mr. President,” Jorge Roig, head of the country’s main business federation, said as Maduro sat at a desk with the word “peace” spelled out by flowers in front of him. “We have economic indicators that show us with one of the highest inflation rates in the world, with enormous shortages.”

Other event participants included beverage magnate Lorenzo Mendoza, whom Maduro praised for suggesting a commission to analyze the country’s economic situation.

Mendoza, chief executive officer of Empresas Polar SA, has faced criticism from Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, both of whom said he exacerbated food shortages in a country with the world’s biggest oil reserves.

Governor Capriles, who lost to Maduro in elections to succeed Chavez last year, has called on the Catholic Church to serve as a mediator and insisted the government release jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was detained last week on charges of inciting violence.

‘More Production’

Lopez’s political coordinator, Carlos Vecchio, is wanted on similar charges, his party, Voluntad Popular, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Extending the holidays on short notice will damage the economy without increasing the number of people leaving big cities, said Ricardo Cusanno, president of Venezuela’s National Hotel Federation.

“This is not the ideal time to be giving extra holidays,” Cusanno said by telephone. “What the country needs is more production, not more days off.”

Venezuela’s 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 in early February.

The Discontent

Amid the discontent, the president has taken steps to address a dollar shortage that has crimped imports, causing scarcities of everything from chicken to paper.

Bank of America Corp. and Barclays Plc both recommended buying Venezuelan bonds after the government published rules Feb. 24 allowing companies and individuals to trade dollars in a regulated market.

Previously, the central bank was the sole supplier of greenbacks and as foreign reserves fell, less currency was made available to pay for imports.

Venezuela’s benchmark dollar bonds due in 2027 are on track for the biggest weekly gain since 2009, on news of currency reform and waning violence. The bond rose 0.525 cents on the dollar to 71.94 cents at 4:02 p.m. in New York.

The government also made moves to address complaints about police repression by arresting eight intelligence police officers over the murder of two people during protests on Feb. 12.

“You can calm passions for a time by sending people on holidays,” pollster Leon said by phone from Caracas yesterday. “If the government doesn’t resolve economic problems and release political prisoners, they will flare up again soon after.”

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