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Venezuela opposition group ready to talk

27 March 2014, 19:48

Caracas - A moderate Venezuelan opposition group said on Wednesday it was ready to talk to the protest-hit government of President Nicolas Maduro, in a rare potential step forward following weeks of unrest.

"We are ready for a transparent, balanced and fair dialogue, a public one with a national or international good-faith facilitator ... that can mediate if needed," Ramon Aveledo told broadcaster Globovision.

Aveledo, of the Democratic Unity group (MUD) that seeks reform without ousting the elected socialist regime, spoke after meeting with foreign ministers from South America's Unasur alliance striving to salve the politically polarized nation's crisis.

The OPEC member has been cracking down on opponents in eight weeks of at times violent street protests that have resulted in at least 34 deaths. Some 500 people have been wounded in the clashes.

Maduro and his government have been the target of such demonstrations fuelled by public anger over soaring crime, hyperinflation and shortages of basic household goods.

Maduro still has a political power base with the majority poor and lower middle class. Though his electoral mandate is not a strong one, opponents say he has been slow to reach out to them.

And not all of the opposition to Maduro is moderate.

Prominent opposition figure Maria Corina Machado, a 46-year-old engineer first elected in 2010, advocates an opposition strategy that seeks to generate pressure with street protests to force Maduro from power.

Former opposition mayor Leopoldo Lopez - in a military jail for more than a month accused of instigating anti-government violence - also supports such a strategy, nicknamed "the way out."

Machado was a lawmaker until Monday, when National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello kicked her out, stripped her of parliamentary immunity, and threatening to arrest her for going before the Organization of American States (OAS) as a guest of Panama to try to talk about the situation in her homeland.

Coup plot

Fiery with defiance, Machado - who flew in from Peru on Wednesday - said she was still a legislator "because that's what the Venezuelan people want, and I will continue doing it as long as Venezuela wants it."

Maduro says the protests - which have been losing some steam in recent weeks - are part of a coup plot led by the opposition in alliance with Washington and conservative Colombians.

Machado said she plans to ignore Cabello's order and go to the next National Assembly meeting. It was unclear if the government would arrest her.

Machado returned from Peru a day after Maduro announced the arrest of three air force generals accused of plotting a coup.

While the government has given no details on the arrests, a government source told AFP that the three are brigadier generals, and one is a former commander of the La Carlota Air Base in the capital Caracas.

Retired general Raul Salazar, a former defence minister under Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, was mystified by the arrests.

None of the generals commanded any troops, Salazar said. "How could they pull off a coup if they had no troops?" he asked.

"Now, if they are part of something broader, that's something else," he told AFP.

In Washington, a gathering of rights groups lamented the "timid" response by the OAS and Venezuela's neighbours to the country's political chaos.

The OAS "has abstained from any real leadership on the current crisis of human rights and the looming spectre of a failed state, even though it was formed precisely to address issues like these," the jailed Lopez wrote in an opinion piece published in The New York Times.

"To be silent is to be complicit in the downward spiral of Venezuela's political system, economy and society," he wrote.



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