Maduro, 51, seems to have weathered the worst of an explosion of
protests against his socialist government that exposed deep
discontent with economic problems and brought the nation's worst
unrest in a decade.
Some students are still setting up roadblocks and clashing with
police in Caracas and the western state of Tachira. But the number
of protesters has dropped, and many Venezuelans have begun heading
for the beach to enjoy a long weekend for Carnival celebrations.
To try to ease the crisis further, Maduro has been holding talks
with business and church leaders and some anti-government
politicians, though the main opposition figures such as two-time
presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have boycotted them.
Lopez, a hardline opposition leader who faces charges of fomenting
the violence, said Maduro's offer of dialogue was a hypocritical
move to try to deflate the protests while failing to address the
deep-seated problems behind them.
"'The dialogue' is a tactical retreat as a result of the pressure in
the streets. It's not real conviction," Lopez said in a message from
Ramo Verde military prison given to his wife, who tweeted it from
his account, @leopoldolopez.
"Maduro's dialogue is: 'come to Miraflores (presidential palace) and
while I speak to the nation, I pursue, kill and repress in the
More than 250 people have been hurt in the unrest and another 500 or
so arrested, authorities say. Venezuela's state prosecutor says 17
people have died, the latest victim shot while trying to dismantle a
barricade in Carabobo state.
'RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY'
Most of the 55 people still behind bars are protesters, but seven
intelligence agents and security officials have also been detained
over the shooting of two people in downtown Caracas after a February
12 rally that sparked the worst trouble.
On Friday, Maduro again invited opposition leaders to discussions,
in public or private. "The country would benefit if we show our
faces and talk, with mutual respect," he said.
The president says about 50 people have died in total due to the
opposition protests, including indirectly linked cases such as
people unable to reach hospitals due to blocked roads.
The worst of the trouble has hit the western state of Tachira,
bordering Colombia. Overnight, National Guard troops moved in to
clear many of the barricades that had been blocking side streets in
the volatile state capital, San Cristobal.
Activity picked up there on Friday, with more businesses open and
more traffic on roads that had been deserted for most of the week.
"Each time they take down the barricades we'll put them up again,"
said Zulay Mendez, 53, a health worker in a downtown plaza where
several hundred people met for a citizens' assembly.
"We're sure we're on the right side of history. There's no Carnival
celebrations because there is nothing to celebrate."
With the nation essentially on holiday until Thursday, students have
called for a major march in Caracas on Sunday.
Maduro brought forward the long weekend for Carnival, then Wednesday
will see national commemorations for the anniversary of late
socialist leader Hugo Chavez's death.
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Ten months after his narrow election win to succeed Chavez, Maduro
has consolidated his leadership of the ruling Socialist Party but
failed to make much headway on tackling the country's rampant
violent crime or nagging economic problems.
BEACH PHOTO BATTLES
Activists on both sides have been trying to score points over
Carnival by posting photos on social media of either empty or
overflowing Caribbean beaches - with few clues as to when the
pictures were taken or, often, where.
Tourism Minister Andres Izarra and other supporters of Maduro packed
their Twitter feeds with pictures of vacationers at beaches or
beauty spots such as Angel Falls, in an attempt to show the protests
have largely fizzled out.
Opposition activists, however, posted photos of deserted-looking
beaches to try to show that Venezuelans were not in a holiday mood
given recent events.
"Not a soul at this time," said one photo supposedly of the
coastline in Anzoategui province.
With local TV barely covering the unrest on the streets, Venezuelans
have been increasingly turning to social media for real-time news.
Falsified images, some showing police fighting with protesters in
countries as far away as Bulgaria or Egypt, have also been doing the
Annual inflation of more than 56 percent and shortages of basic
products from milk and flour to toilet paper and medicines afflict
all Venezuelans, whatever their politics.
Analysts say that while this current round of protests may die down,
the economy will remain Maduro's biggest headache. Business leaders
have been urging him to reform the statist economic model
established by Chavez during his 14-year rule.
The United Nations called again for dialogue and an end to the
violence on Friday, adding that inflammatory rhetoric from all sides
was "utterly unhelpful" as well as dangerous.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was discussing with
Colombia and other nations the possibility of international
mediation in Venezuela.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea and Diego Ore in Caracas,
Brian Ellsworth in San Cristobal, Lesley Wroughton in Washington,
and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by James Dalgleish and Jonathan
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