LIMA, Peru — The anti-government unrest rocking Venezuela shows no sign of letting up, with the demonstrations and violence now spreading beyond the capital to provincial cities.
Opponents of Venezuela's leftist government prepared for a mass protest rally in Caracas Saturday, a day after President Nicolas Maduro issued a surprise call for direct talks with the United States.
The risk of violence is high as a march of pro-government "Chavista women" is also scheduled for Saturday in Caracas.
Outside the capital, the Andean cities of Merida and San Cristobal has seen some of the worst upheaval, with locals calling the latter a “war zone” as protesters barricaded streets and threw Molotov cocktails at security forces.
Police reportedly responded with tear gas and water cannons in an attempt to halt the turmoil now entering its third week. Meanwhile, Maduro ordered a battalion of paratroopers to the troubled city, prompting opposition criticism of a "militarization" of the government response to the unrest.
Inspired by Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader now in jail facing charges of instigating the violence, the demonstrators accuse Maduro of authoritarianism, economic mismanagement and a failure to rein in one of the world’s worst violent crime waves.
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On Thursday, the violence claimed more lives, bringing the reported death toll now to eight. That included the shooting death of pro-government activist Alexis Martinez, the brother of a ruling party congressman, in the northeastern city of Barquisimeto. He’s the second government supporter to be killed.
Meanwhile, four anti-government protesters have also been shot dead. One elderly woman died of natural causes after an ambulance taking her to the hospital was held up by the demonstrations. A public prosecutor crashed his car after allegedly swerving to avoid a barricade.
No suspects have been identified in any of the killings. But Maduro has said that the same gun was used in two of the slayings, one of an anti-government protester and the other of a government supporter. Maduro, a left-wing populist and political heir to the late Hugo Chavez, has blamed the opposition marchers his administration calls "fascists" for escalating the violence.
Maduro says the protests are part of a "coup d'etat in development" instigated by Washington and conservative ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.
On Friday, Maduro challenged Obama to meet him for talks. "I call a dialogue with you, President Obama ... between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government," he said.
"Accept the challenge and we will start a high-level dialogue and put the truth on the table," Maduro told a news conference.
The opposition meanwhile is blaming the bloodshed on the “colectivos,” armed pro-government militias established by Chavez in response to the 2002 attempted coup carried out with the apparent blessing of the George W. Bush administration.
Venezuelans were using social media and foreign TV news to track the unfolding violence after local television — which rights groups say is under Maduro's thumb — largely ignored the mayhem.
Yet the government appears intent on stopping that too. On Thursday, the government cut off San Cristobal's internet. That follows previous government blocks of images of the turmoil on Twitter.
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As if that wasn’t enough, Maduro kicked one of the world’s most respected news networks out of Venezuel, revoking the permits of both CNN International and its Spanish-language sister station CNN en Espanol.
“CNN is leaving Venezuela! No more war propaganda!” he said during a televised address on Thursday evening. “I don’t accept war propaganda against Venezuela.”
CNN en Espanol anchor Patricia Janiot told viewers about apparent official harrassment as she flew out of Caracas airport on Friday morning, with airport security even slicing open her shoes, supposedly searching for drugs.
Meanwhile, Lopez continued to languish in a military jail awaiting trial for supposedly inciting the bloodshed.
Nevertheless, his wife, Lilian Tintori, continued using his Twitter feed to send out messages of encouragement from him to the demonstrators, including accusing Maduro of “lies and fantasy,” adding: “I don't negotiate and will not negotiate with dictatorships.”
The 42-year-old economist and Harvard graduate, appears to have escaped the worst charges, of terrorism and murder, laid at him by Maduro.
He could, though, still be sentenced to years in jail on lesser charges relating to the violence — even though he has always called for the demonstrations to be peaceful.
Meanwhile, the national assembly, controlled by Maduro´s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), moved to lift the congressional immunity from another prominent opposition figure, lawmaker Marina Corina Machado, who the government also accuses of provoking the unrest.
Handling Lopez now presents a key test for Maduro, whose attacks on his critics have become more and more ferocious as the pressure on his administration has ratcheted up in recent weeks.
The president may have painted himself into a corner with his strident accusations against Lopez, repeatedly calling his opponent a “fascist” and accusing him of orchestrating a coup.
But jailing Lopez, who describes himself as center-left and whose small Popular Will party is affiliated to the Socialist International movement, would turn him into Latin America’s highest profile political prisoner and strengthen the backlash against the Maduro administration that is already roiling Venezuela.
Turning Lopez into a martyr could also potentially catapult the young leader ahead of Henrique Capriles as the opposition’s unofficial but undisputed leader.
Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, came within two percentage points of beating Maduro in last April’s presidential elections.
But since then, his patient approach to ousting the PSUV from power has frustrated some of his supporters, including Lopez, who believe that Venezuela’s twin public security and economic crises simply cannot be tolerated anymore.
They are pursuing a strategy they call “la salida,” or “exit,” using peaceful but overwhelming street protests to force Maduro to step down.
Capriles, meanwhile, argues that Chavismo can only be defeated by ending the confrontational approach that has polarized Venezuela between those who loved and loathed Chavez.
Capriles also believes that demonstrations will not work until they are joined by the underclass that has benefited from 15 years of Chavez’s anti-poverty programs, a condition that has yet to be fully met.
Despite his differences with Lopez, Capriles is offering his support for the jailed leader. On Thursday, he accused the government of deliberately dividing the country and dismissed the suggestion that the opposition was attempting to overthrow the government in an unconstitutional fashion, noting that, by definition, it was the military rather than civilians that carried out coups.
“How many more dead do you want? How many more injured do you want?” Capriles asked of the government, repeating his calls for the demonstrators to avoid violence and keep the focus on the government’s failures.
On his Twitter feed, Capriles also questioned why prosecutors were not investigating the governor of Carabobo state and Maduro ally, Francisco Ameliach, for calling for a “definitive counterattack” on demonstrators.
Ameliach made the call the day before a 22-year-old student and local beauty queen, Genesis Carmona, participating in a protest against Maduro in Carabobo was killed by single gunshot to the head.
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AFP contributed to this report.