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Venezuela braces for more protests

Rival rallies planned in Caracas as government peace conference is due to begin.

Last updated: 26 Feb 2014 18:55
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The socialists have won 18 out of the 19 elections they have contested since 1998 [EPA]

Caracas, Venezuela - Another day of rival rallies is gripping Venezuela’s capital, despite a government-organised peace conference and calls for calm by the pope.

"I sincerely hope that violence and hostility will cease as soon as possible, and that the whole Venezuelan people, beginning with political leaders and institutions, will endeavour to promote reconciliation," Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina, said during his weekly audience at the Vatican.

A series of demonstrations planned for Wednesday could change the mood of central Caracas, which on Tuesday seemed calmer than during previous days.

Opponents of Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government will hold a rally of women on Wednesday, marching to the headquarters of the national guard, led by congresswomen Maria Corina Machado and the wife of jailed opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez.

“Every day we see more and more and more terrible things," Lilian Tintori, 36, Lopez’s wife and an outspoken activist in her on right told Al Jazeera’s Daniel Schweimler. "We're all scared that we'll be killed or kidnapped.”

Venezuela has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America, and insecurity has been a rallying point for opposition.

Rural workers and farmers are holding a separate pro-government rally at the presidential palace.

“The opposition just uses insecurity as a flag, they think we aren’t aware of this,” Miriam Perez, a pro-government demonstrator told Al Jazeera. “They are the ones causing violence. They refuse to recognise the gains of our revolution. The people can’t be fooled any more. We elected our president and we will defend him.”

Peace conference

The government’s peace conference, also on Wednesday, following the deaths of at least 16 people since February 12, is not expected to yield a break-through as opposition leaders, including two-time former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, refused to attend.

"We have nothing to discuss with a dictatorial regime," Tintori told Al Jazeera. The socialists have won 18 out of the 19 elections they have contested since 1998. Poverty and inequality have dropped during their rule, with hundreds of millions invested into new social programmes as a result of high oil prices. Crime, inflation and economic dysfunction have also increased substantially." 

"This government is the first to show concern for the poor," Andrea Villamizar, a law student and opposition protester told Al Jazeera when asked why her side was unable to win elections. "But the government is just buying their support. We want a country where all Venezuelans are included."

Former US President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Centre has monitored elections in South America’s largest oil-exporter, offered to meet with both sides of the divided nation to try and mediate a dispute of "grave concern".

For a dialogue to succeed both sides need to "send signals of their willingness to alleviate the present state of tension" said the former Nobel laureate who is one of the few US officials respected by the government.

The government must make changes so elected opposition leaders do not "feel threatened and persecuted" he said, while the opposition must make a clear commitment to respect the constitutional process and strongly reject violence coming from its supporters.

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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