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Venezuelan Officials And Opposition To Meet After Weeks Of Protests

By Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — The first face-to-face meeting between Venezuela’s government and the political opposition since violent protests erupted in February are scheduled to start late Thursday, with the proceedings mediated by three Latin American foreign ministers and broadcast nationwide.

Though participants for each side have not been identified, President Nicolas Maduro is expected to attend for the government and face three members of the Democratic Unity coalition of opposition parties: Ramon Guillermo Avelado, Henri Falcon and Omar Barboza.

Some high drama could be provided by the appearance of Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state who narrowly lost the presidential election last year to Maduro. Capriles has said the election was “stolen” from him and that he considers Maduro an illegitimate president.

“This sounds hard and sad but either we have dialogue or we all die. That’s the truth,” Falcon, the governor of Lara state, said Wednesday.

Some opposition leaders, including expelled National Assembly member Maria Corina Machado, oppose the talks. They argue that the government should first release political prisoners and disarm vigilantes that they say have terrorized protesters over the last two months.

At least 40 people have been killed in clashes between demonstrators on one side and government security forces and vigilantes on the other, with hundreds more injured and detained. The protests started among students in western Tachira state over the lack of security on a university campus and quickly spread to other cities.

Since the demonstrations began, three opposition leaders — former Caracas borough Mayor Leopoldo Lopez and two serving mayors — have been arrested allegedly for inciting violence. The protests have focused on rising violent crime, scarcities of basic foodstuffs and a faltering economy.

In a Twitter message to followers, Lopez, who has been imprisoned in a military jail since Feb. 18, said he supported Thursday’s meeting.

The talks, which Maduro has described as a “debate” and not a negotiation, will take place in the presidential palace Miraflores. On Wednesday, Maduro invited the Vatican’s secretary of state Cardinal Piero Parolin, who is a former papal nuncio to Venezuela, to participate as a “good-faith witness.”

“I would be a traitor if I tried to negotiate the revolution, because that’s not in my power,” Maduro said Tuesday in his weekly program over state-run TV. “Dialogue has to be the way to construct our nation. We won’t convert them into socialists and they won’t turn us into capitalists.”

A preparatory meeting was held Tuesday in the Foreign Ministry building and included the three foreign ministers who will mediate the Thursday encounter: Colombia’s Maria Angela Holguin, Brazil’s Luiz Alberto Figueiredo and Ecuador’s Ricardo Patino.

In addition to the release of prisoners and the disarming of vigilantes, the Democratic Unity coalition is expected to demand the government take steps to ensure more “pluralism” in the government and perhaps form an independent “truth commission.”

Maduro is expected to propose a new economic plan to address scarcities and weak job growth.

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez 

Venezuela Introduces Food ID In Face Of Shortages, Black Markets

By Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — Grappling with scarcities of sugar, milk, cornmeal and other basic foods, the Venezuelan government Tuesday unveiled a new electronic identification system for shoppers that critics say is a modern version of a ration card. President Nicolas Maduro described it as a means of “safeguarding food sovereignty.”

The system will employ electronic fingerprint IDs similar to those used to identify Venezuelan voters to register shoppers who purchase goods at the state-run grocery chains Mercal, Bicentenario and PDVAL. Announcing the system last month, Maduro said it will assure food supplies for 84 percent of Venezuelans. He did not speak to the impact on the other 16 percent.

The purpose of the system, Maduro said, is to guard against the purchase of large quantities of food at cut-rate government prices to be marked up and resold on the black market, where some experts have estimated 40 percent of all subsidized food ends up.

It remains to be seen whether the system will halt the large volumes of low-priced food destined for Mercal markets that end up being sold in Colombian border cities, including Maicao and Cucuta. Venezuelan contraband food reportedly also is sold in Brazil and Cuba.

Although the government has made efforts in recent months to seal the border with Colombia to restrict food contraband from leaving Venezuela, the diversion of subsidized food by hoarders and black marketers is partly responsible for 26 percent of basic food items having been officially classified as scarce by Venezuela’s central bank.

Other reasons cited by analysts for food scarcities include the decline in recent years in farm production they say is caused by price controls that wipe out farmers’ profits. Another factor is the government’s cash shortage, caused in part by diminished oil revenues, which has restricted its ability to finance the imports on which Venezuelans depend for many basic food items, as well as toilet paper and disposable diapers.

Also Tuesday, opposition leader Maria Corina Machado called for a rally to protest her being ousted last month as a member of the National Assembly. The move by fellow legislators was upheld Monday night by the country’s supreme court.

The court found that Machado deserved disqualification for having appeared before the Organization of American States last month as a temporary member of the Panamanian delegation to protest alleged human rights violations against demonstrators in Venezuela.

Machado stepped in to lead widespread protests against scarcities, inflation and the high crime rate after the Feb. 18 arrest of former Caracas borough Mayor Leopoldo Lopez.

On Monday, the government officially raised the death toll from nearly two months of protests to 39, with hundreds more people injured. More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested in disturbances in several cities. Two mayors also have been jailed for their alleged failure to keep streets free of blockades erected by protesters.

Last week the government introduced a new “parallel” foreign exchange system that severely devalues the bolivar, the national currency. While the official exchange rate is still 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, the new system enabled those holding dollars to change them at nearly 52 bolivars to the dollar.

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez

Marchers, Mayors Defy Venezuelan Government

By Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s government and opposition marchers were headed for a showdown Wednesday while several Caracas borough mayors defied a supreme court order that they clear barricades in parts of the capital where demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro have now entered a second month.

Opponents to Maduro have organized a march in downtown Caracas in observance of the Flag Day national holiday, even as the government has vowed to stop marchers because they have no permit. National guard members in riot gear were seen posted in several points along the proposed march route Wednesday.

Maria Corina Machado, an opposition deputy in the National Assembly and a leader of protests against high crime, inflation and scarcities, had called for students and other Maduro opponents to march from Plaza Venezuela to the Public Defender’s office to demand the release of students and others detained over the last month.

Meanwhile, supporters of the government have called for a competing march that also will end up in the same area as the protesters.

Police in riot gear blocked a march Monday by doctors and other health workers to protest the lack of medical supplies in city hospitals. On Tuesday, opposition groups in Valencia reported 12 were injured in clashes with police and in Merida at least 16 people were injured.

Also on Tuesday, the official death toll since protests began Feb 12 rose to 23 with the death of 24-year old Daniel Tinoco, a student in San Cristobal, the capital of Tachira state, the scene of some of the most violent protests.

Residents in the Chacao area of eastern Caracas reported a four-hour confrontation Tuesday night between protesters and national guardsmen, who fired several tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Chacao is an affluent neighborhood once governed by former mayor Leopoldo Lopez, who remains jailed after his arrest Feb. 18 on incitement to violence charges.

The supreme court order that local mayors clear streets of barricades came after the mayors issued a joint statement over the weekend vowing that although they disagreed with the closures, they would defy any government effort to “intervene” in their local governments because it wasn’t local police duty to “deal with public order problems.”

“We support and accompany the massive and peaceful protest that has been expressed overwhelmingly in the streets of the principal cities of the country,” said the statement signed by Carlos Ocariz, David Smolansky, Gerardo Blyde and Ramon Muchacho, all mayors of Caracas suburbs. “We are not going to attack human rights of those who demonstrate in this manner.”

In a related matter, Chrysler announced it was shuttering for 60 days its car assembly plant in central Carabobo state for lack of auto components, although it will continue to pay 1,150 employees. The announcement comes one month after Toyota announced it was scaling back in Venezuela for similar reasons.

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez

Venezuela’s Fugitive Opposition Leader Surrenders To Authorities

By Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez turned himself in to authorities Tuesday to face what he says are trumped-up homicide charges, after urging supporters to stay in the streets and demonstrate peacefully against the government.

Speaking before a crowd of supporters in the capital, Caracas, Lopez said he would not flee Venezuela or go into hiding “because it would show we have something to hide.” Rather, he said he had decided to give himself up to “a corrupt justice system” and continue the fight for political change.

“Our youth have no jobs, no future because of this economic model that has failed,” Lopez said, referring to deepening problems that include double-digit inflation, a rapidly devaluing currency and food scarcities.

News reports said that Lopez, who was dressed in white at the rally, as a sign of peace, turned himself in to national guard units after his speech.

He sent out a message from his Twitter account thanking supporters. “Change lies within each of us. Don’t give up!” he wrote.

Earlier, an alliance of opposition parties said authorities were trying to prevent protesters from gathering in downtown Caracas to march in support of Lopez, for whom an arrest warrant was issued in connection with last week’s bloody demonstrations that left three dead and dozens injured.

Protesters reported on social media that police and national guard units had set up blockades at several points in the city and were telling them they would not be allowed through to the march’s start point in central Caracas.

Caracas borough Mayor Jorge Rodriguez warned Monday night that the march was in essence illegal, and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said on his television show that marchers would not be allowed to progress more than a few blocks.

In a statement issued Tuesday morning, the opposition Democratic Unity Panel, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, said that the government had deployed police and military personnel to “impede citizens from their right to peaceful assembly, showing odious discrimination in allowing some the right to express themselves and others not.”

The release referred to large gatherings of government loyalists that were allowed to form to show support for embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

Caracas and other Venezuelan cities have seen rising unrest since Feb. 12, when student marches turned violent. Marchers claimed armed government vigilantes opened fire on them, while Maduro blamed the protesters for the bloodshed.

Meanwhile, reports circulated of increasing police harassment of journalists covering the protests. Colombian television journalist Juan Pablo Bieri, one of at least 11 reporters arrested in the last week, told Bogota’s El Tiempo newspaper that he was beaten by Venezuelan national guard units when he was detained for about an hour while covering the Feb. 12 unrest in Caracas.

“It was a crime against us, our country and news coverage,” Bieri said.

AFP Photo/Leo Ramirez