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Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 6:31:43 AM
Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 6:31:43 AM
by brian ellsworth
CARACAS (Reuters) - A meeting between a top Venezuelan opposition leader and President Nicolas Maduro on Monday may help ease nearly two weeks of violent anti-government protests that have killed at least eight people.
State governor Henrique Capriles will meet Maduro at a routine gathering of governors and mayors and will likely get a chance to present the opposition's grievances.
The daily unrest has sharpened the bitter divide between critics and supporters of the ruling Socialist Party, although even Maduro's rivals appear to be growing weary of blocked streets and constant clashes between students and police.
"Dialogue is not about listening to what the government wants to say, it's about making sure the demonstrators' voices are heard," Capriles, a two-time opposition presidential candidate, wrote on Sunday in his weekly column.
Five people have died from gunshot wounds in the unrest that began on February 12 with the death of a student protestor and was later fuelled by the arrest of hard-line opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
A 23-year-old female student died on Saturday after being shot in the face with rubber bullets, while others have died in accidents caused by the roadblocks.
Maduro, who has vowed to nurture the self-styled socialist revolution he inherited from late president Hugo Chavez, calls the demonstrations acts of terrorism by "fascists" seeking a coup similar to the one that briefly ousted Chavez in 2002.
But he has expressed willingness to meet Capriles.
"Welcome, governor (to the meeting) ... we'll speak there," said Maduro, 51, before a rally of supporters on Saturday.
His government has freed almost all of the nearly 100 students arrested during the recent unrest. That has been a central opposition demand, so could encourage dialogue.
Maduro received a group of senior citizens at the presidential palace on Sunday in one of several government events "for peace" in recent days that have been aimed at drawing a contrast with the opposition's protests.
The seniors, clad in red shirts, sat in the courtyard of the Miraflores palace listening to a folk music band.
The protests were initially seen as a renewal of a stagnant opposition movement, but have risked alienating moderates.
Roadblocks of burning trash and clashes between rock-throwing students and tear-gas-lobbing troops have shown no sign of forcing Maduro from power but have become a growing annoyance for the mostly well-to-do neighbourhoods where they take place.
"Who are you trying to convince by blocking your own street if your neighbours are already on your side?" Capriles said on Saturday at an opposition rally.
"Bravery is not throwing the most stones or talking the loudest, it is using ideas to change someone else's mind."
Many of Maduro's harshest critics were outraged when a young supermarket worker died late on Friday after driving his motorcycle into a cable stretched across a road as part of an improvised opposition roadblock.
Maduro said opposition-linked military officer Gen. Angel Vivas encouraged demonstrators to string up cables at roadblocks and trained them to do so, and on Saturday ordered his arrest in connection with the young man's death.
Demonstrators on Sunday surrounded Vivas' house in the wealthy Caracas neighbourhood of Prados del Este in response to rumours that troops were on the way to arrest him, burning trash and setting up barricades that blocked access to his home.
Vivas, who according to media has in the past faced court martial for insubordination, stood on a balcony of his house berating the Maduro government while holding an assault rifle.
"We must remain in resistance because we are opposing a foreign invasion, we are being invaded by the damn state of Cuba," shouted Vivas, invoking an opposition mantra of excessive influence of the allied Communist-run island.
Vivas returned to his house without being detained.
Defence ministry officials did not respond to calls seeking clarification as to whether Vivas is still in active service.
The unrest over nearly two weeks have been worst at night, when clashes between hooded students and the security forces have tended to break out.
Most cities have returned to business as usual by day.
Residents of Caracas' poor west side have not launched many demonstrations, though government critics there have joined traditional protests of banging pots and pans at their windows during Maduro's hours-long television broadcasts.
The wave of violence has shifted attention away from economic troubles including inflation of 56 percent, slowing growth, and shortages of staple goods such as milk and flour.
The opposition blames these problems on Chavez's economy legacy of nationalizations, currency controls and constant confrontation with businesses.
Maduro calls it an "economic war" led by the opposition.
The former bus driver calls himself the "son" of Chavez and has vowed to continue the generous public spending that helped reduce poverty and propelled the late president to repeated election victories over 14 years.
Opponents say socialism has crippled private enterprise and weakened state institutions while spawning a nepotistic elite that enriches itself with the country's oil wealth.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Carlos Rawlins; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray, Frances Kerry and Meredith Mazzilli)
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