Venezuela’s Maduro Proposes “Peace Conference” to Resolve Opposition Protests

Source: Venezuela Analysis

Mérida, 24th February 2014 ( – Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has called for a “National Peace Conference” as a means of resolving the on-going violent opposition protests in Venezuela. The opposition has made a set of “demands” for dialogue to begin.

Protests began two weeks ago after opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called supporters onto the streets to force the “exit” of President Nicolas Maduro. Lopez is currently in custody and being investigated for inciting violent acts.

Some opposition marches have been peaceful, and have incorporated complaints over shortages, inflation and high crime. Meanwhile, an extremist sector of the opposition has engaged in a strategy of street blockades and nightly riots in an attempt to undermine the government.

Last Saturday during a large “march for peace” in Caracas, Maduro suggested that a “National Peace Conference” incorporating “all the social and political sectors of the country” could create the dialogue necessary to resolve the situation.

“It will be a conference for peace. We’ve got to neutralise these violent groups,” he said. The Venezuelan president suggested this conference could be held over several meetings with representatives from different social sectors such as workers, students, and artists and intellectuals.

The government blames far-right groups within the opposition for the violence in the country, and points to the killing of several civilians on street barricades, rioting, and attacks on government infrastructure as evidence of this. President Maduro argues that these actions are part of a “coup attempt” being orchestrated by the conservative opposition.

The opposition rejects the allegation, and says the government and radical chavistas are responsible for repressing “peaceful” protests and causing the deaths of several pro-opposition students.

On Saturday Maduro welcomed the decision of opposition leader Henrique Capriles to attend a meeting with him and the country’s state governors in the Federal Government Council today. However Capriles, who is governor of Miranda state, said this morning he was still not sure if he would attend.

On Saturday the president also said he was open to “dialogue” with the United States, who he accuses of supporting the opposition’s protests. Maduro stated that he was willing to designate an ambassador to Washington, “So that the U.S. hears the truth about Venezuela and respects our people”. On 16 February Maduro expelled three U.S. consular officials from Venezuela for alleged “conspiracy” with the opposition.

However Maduro also told supporters that, “If due to the circumstances of fascist violence [the opposition] take power, I authorise you to go onto the streets and defend the nation, to rescue every millimetre of the homeland”.

Opposition stance

Henrique Capriles made a list of opposition “demands” to the government during a large opposition march in Caracas on Saturday. One of these was that all “students and youths” allegedly arrested during recent protests and violence be released, along with Leopoldo Lopez and Ivan Simonovis, a police captain convicted for his role in the killings during the April 2002 coup.  Simonovis maintains his innocence.

A second demand was “the ceasing of persecution, repression, and so that exiles can return to the country,” and the “disarmament of paramilitaries” that the opposition blames for the violence.

The Venezuelan government denies charges of repression, saying it is maintaining public order against riots and street barricades, while investigating any reported cases of abuses by officials. President Maduro has also publicly warned chavistas not to engage in violent acts.

Capriles on Saturday also made calls to violent opposition sectors to halt their actions, saying that they “make it easy for the government”. “What do you achieve closing yourselves in within your own street? It’s in the government’s interest that the protests are in Altamira [a wealthy area of Caracas] and not Catia [a working class area of Caracas]”.

He exhorted the opposition to have “the same agenda”, and turn the protests into “the greatest social movement in Venezuela”. The opposition leader also made a series of criticisms of Nicolas Maduro, saying that he had an “empty discourse” and telling opposition students not to let Maduro “mess them around”.

Telesur interview

On Sunday President Nicolas Maduro gave an interview to television network Telesur, where he gave his impression of the situation in Venezuela.

“It’s not another conspiracy plan or another day of street barricades, it’s a developing state coup, decided in the circles of power in the United States, conjured with the business elites of Venezuela, and directed and driven in the streets by a sector of the Venezuelan extreme right-wing,” he argued.

According to Maduro the alleged plan to remove the government from power was born before Hugo Chavez died in March last year, and was intensified with an “economic war” and “electricity sabotage”.

The president also referred to Henrique Capriles’ refusal to recognise Maduro’s narrow victory in the April 2013 presidential election, and the eleven pro-government civilians who were then killed after Capriles called on supporters to “drain their rage”.

In his interview Maduro said a national and international media campaign by the opposition was currently being used to “annul” the state’s constitutional right to maintain public order and defend citizens under attack from violent groups.

He also said there are groups in Colombia financing the far-right’s activities in Venezuela in order to create a “civil war” and provoke “U.S. intervention”. Maduro has previously accused former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe of involvement in the alleged plot.

Maduro cited a recent poll by private Venezuelan firm International Consulting Services (ICS), which found that 81% of Venezuelans consider that the protests in Venezuela “have been violent”. The poll was taken last week, with a sample of 1,400.

Also yesterday, pro-government journalist Jose Vicente Rangel revealed the results of another recent poll on attitudes to mechanisms for political change at Venezuela’s current juncture.

According to the poll, undertaken by private consultancy firm Hinterlaces with a sample of 1,400, only 29% of Venezuelans feel that the government should be forced from office through street actions.

Meanwhile 29% feel a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency should be organised in 2016, and 42% feel that Maduro should be allowed to serve out his full mandate uninterrupted, until 2019.

As such, Vicente Rangel highlighted that 71% of the country feels that Venezuela’s political future should be decided through the constitutional electoral process, and that only 29% support the government’s forced “exit” through street actions. “The vote is [part of] Venezuelan culture and the majority support stability and hope over chaos and uncertainty,” he argued.

Barricades and protests continue

The positioning of Venezuela’s political leaders occurred over a backdrop of ongoing protests and violent street blockades in some parts of Venezuela. Opposition protesters continue to meet in the up-market Chacao area of eastern Caracas.

A total of 13 people have so far been killed in connection with the violence, according to a report by the Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Diaz, today. One of the most recent victims was student Geraldine Moreno, who was reportedly shot in the head with a pellet by a National Guardsman during a protest in Carabobo state. The scientific police investigation body (CICPC) are investigating the incident.

Ortega Diaz also reported that a total of 579 people have been arrested since the protests and barricades began, of which 529 have been released on bail conditions within 24 hours of their arrest. Of the other 50, 45 have been held for longer periods to be charged, and 5 were released after it was determined they had nothing to do with the clashes, she said.

Further, Maduro claimed today that thirty people with respiratory conditions have been killed as a result of opposition street  barricades and the smoke created by the burning rubbish, tires and uprooted trees with which they are built.

A few cities, including parts of the capital Caracas, are currently affected by street barricades, which reduce the circulation of traffic and the normal functioning of urban zones. Several violent deaths have also occurred on the barricades.

In Merida city security forces and pro-government citizens have cleared many barricades, but barricaders have set them up again elsewhere. Barricaders have attacked National Guard forces trying to clear away the barricades with rocks and Molotovs.