CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called for dialogue and an end to violence as he opened a peace conference intended to end nearly a month of protests that have claimed 15 lives and left scores wounded in the South American country.
“The political conflict we are living can not be resolved by arms,”
Maduro said as he welcomed participants to the conference. “I believe firmly in dialogue.” Politicians, businessmen, actors and writers, and unionists were among the invitees.
Although the country’s leading opposition figures boycotted the conference, several businessmen took Maduro and his government’s policies to task, saying they had contributed to protests that erupted on Feb. 2.
“Mr President, our country isn’t well,” said Jorge Ruig, who heads the Federation of Venezuelan Chambers of Commerce and Industries. “As head of state, you have a responsibility to calm the country.”
Venezuela is suffering from soaring inflation, which is expected to be even higher than last year’s 56% when it was the highest in the world.
Food shortages are common, and crime is rampant.
However, the conference’s chances of success seemed slim even before participants took their seats after the country’s main opposition group said it wouldn’t attend talks which it called a sham.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, who is the secretary general of the main opposition umbrella group, said in a letter to the government and released to the press that to attend the conference while fighting rages would be “a mockery to our supporters.”
“The country’s situation is grave,” Aveledo said. “Today, coexistence is seriously altered by the events.” Aveledo said the government must rein in its armed paramilitaries, or colectivos, and end violence against protestors.
Earlier today, Venezuelans opposing and supporting the government held rallies.
Women headed by Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, held silent marches throughout the country to demand that the government end its violent suppression of protests.
“We, Venezuelan women, are asking the National Guard to immediately stop the repression against our children,” said National Assemblywoman Maria Corina Machado. Marchers were dressed in white and carried flowers. They delivered a document to the National Guard headquarters in Caracas asking for toleration.
Tintori’s group is modeling itself after Ladies in White, women in Cuba who are wives and other female relatives of dissidents jailed by the Castro regime. The women attend Mass on Sundays wearing white dresses and silently walk through the streets after the service is ended.
The movement received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in 2005. Lately the women are harassed and sometimes arrested by the Cuban regime.
Maduro is a staunch ally of the Cuban regime.
At the other end of Caracas, thousands of farm laborers supporting Maduro gathered at the presidential palace after marching through Caracas. Some drove tractors or other farm equipment.
Maduro, sporting a straw peasants’ hat, met them at the palace, and promised to work for calming tensions in the country.
Dueling protests have been a fixture since violent demonstrations erupted on Feb. 2.
Since then rioting has torn the country’s largest cities, presenting Maduro with the biggest challenge in his 10-month-old presidency.
Meantime, calls for a peaceful resolution to Venezuela’s crisis are mounting.
Pope Francis I called for national reconciliation based on “mutual forgiveness and sincere dialogue.” The Organization of American States postponed a special session on Venezuela’s mounting violence.
Calls for dialogue come amid allegations of torture against Venezuela’s National Guard and security forces. At least 18 cases have been alleged, including one student who claims to have been sodomized by a gun.
The state attorney general’s office reported late today that it was issuing arrest warrants for five special policemen who will be charged with murdering two protesters on Feb. 12 when the rioting turned deadly.
In an attempt to defuse the crisis, Maduro decreed Thursday and Friday as holidays, giving Venezuelans six days off for the Carnival festivities. However, some states and cities have canceled Carnival festivities due to the violence.