Latin America

Venezuelans to hold rival marches for May Labour Day

President Maduro announces 60 percent salary raise for public workers to counter violent protests demanding his removal.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has raised wages and handed out hundreds of free homes as part of efforts to counter a strengthening protest movement seeking his removal.

The announcements came as government supporters and Maduro's opponents prepared for rival marches to commemorate May Day on Monday.

On his regular television show, Sundays with Maduro, the socialist leader ordered a 60 percent increase in the country's minimum wage starting on Monday.

It was the third pay increase Maduro has ordered this year and the 15th since he became president in 2013.

Workers in Venezuela have seen the buying power of their earnings eroded by a weakening currency and the world's highest inflation rate.

With the latest wage increase and mandatory food subsidies, the minimum take-home pay for millions of Venezuelans now stands at 200,000 bolivars a month - or less than $50 at the widely used black market rate.

'Economic war'

In addition to the pay rise, Maduro announced a special "economic war" bonus to retirees to make up for what he says are attempts by the opposition to sabotage the economy.

Maduro also watched as officials in several states handed over the keys to hundreds of new apartments, some built with Chinese funding, bringing the number of public housing units built by a programme started by late President Hugo Chavez to 1.6 million.

Twenty-nine people have been killed, hundreds injured and more than 1,300 arrested during a month of protests that are the bloodiest to hit Venezuela since anti-government unrest in 2014 resulted in more than 40 dead.

Protesters accuse Maduro of taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship, the unrest prompted by the government-stacked Supreme Tribunal stripping Congress of its last vestiges of power.

Explainer: Venezuela - What is happening?

They are demanding early elections and freedom for dozens of political prisoners as a way out of the stalemate.

The opposition blames security forces and pro-government militias for the deaths.

Maduro on Sunday welcomed an offer by Pope Francis for Vatican mediation, but opposition leaders rebuffed the overture.

"Dramatic news on the worsening of the situation in Venezuela keeps coming in with numerous deaths, injuries and prisoners," Francis said before a crowd of 70,000 attending weekly prayers in Saint Peter's Square on Sunday.

"United in sorrow with the families of the victims ... I issue a sincere appeal to the government and all sectors of Venezuelan society to avoid all forms of violence henceforward."

Vatican conditions

Urging respect for human rights, Francis said the Vatican was willing to act as a mediator under "clear conditions".

Maduro responded on his weekly programme on state VTV television, pointing a finger of blame at the opposition.

"If I say dialogue, they flee in horror. They don't want dialogue. Yesterday, they lashed out at Pope Francis. I respect what Pope Francis is saying," Maduro said.

He charged that the protests were an attempt to plunge the country into chaos, take over power and "impose a counter-revolution on Venezuela".

Protesters say Maduro is taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship [Christian Veron/Reuters]

"There are no words for what they have done since April," he said.

Maduro's government has complained of what it considers biased media coverage that will pave the way for some sort of foreign intervention in Venezuela.

Many in the opposition consider Maduro's recent offer of governor elections an empty concession and are pushing for an early presidential vote after the government cancelled regional races last year.

Supporters say Leopoldo Lopez, the jailed head of the opposition Popular Will party, and others are political prisoners whose arrests symbolise Maduro's drift into dictatorship.

Maduro says all are behind bars for legitimate crimes, and calls Lopez, 45, a violent hothead intent on promoting a coup.

Maduro's allies currently govern 20 of Venezuela's 23 states but polls indicate the opposition is likely to win the next election after it took control of Congress in December 2015 by a landslide.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies