AFP – Angry Venezuelan students geared up to stage a fresh rally on Tuesday, the latest in three weeks of anti-government protests that have left at least 14 people dead.
The leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro, which has clashed with the United States for years, said meanwhile it would name an ambassador to Washington on Tuesday. The two countries have been without mutual envoys since 2010.
This olive branch came even though Venezuela last week announced the expulsion of three US diplomats on grounds they were conspiring with student protesters.
Maduro said he wanted to enhance dialogue with Washington because he said Americans did not understand what is happening with the violence in his oil-rich country. He has likened it to an attempted coup.
On Monday protesters erected barricades in major cities in some of the worst demonstrations against the government since the protests began.
Tires were burned in cities from the Andes to the plains to Caracas near the Caribbean, adding to the pressure on Maduro’s administration.
Police firing tear gas dispersed some 50 demonstrators in Caracas late Monday. They had been blocking streets with barricades in the posh district of Chacao.
In San Cristobal, near the Colombian border, where some of the country’s recent protests first erupted among students on 4 February, riot police used tear gas to break up a demonstration.
In the latest reported death a student who was on a rooftop terrace fell backwards to his death on the street as police were breaking up the crowd.
With 45 people still under arrest after marches largely inspired by the country’s dire shortages of basic goods and longstanding problems with inflation, the potential for escalation remained visible.
In a rare public split within Maduro’s ranks, a ruling party governor called for the release of all jailed protesters, an intervention that came ahead of a meeting of his counterparts, called by the president.
Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, the governor of the western state of Tachira where the student-led protests began, also criticized the government’s use of the military, calling the response “a grave error” and “unacceptable excess.”
Maduro insists the protests are a US-inspired coup d’etat to assail his democratic rule, less than a year since he was narrowly elected successor to the late leftist icon Hugo Chavez, whose policies he has continued.
The students, however, have been a vanguard for public outrage at what they see as grim prospects for Venezuelans that they attribute to economic mismanagement under Maduro and Chavez.
Around 50,000 people turned out Saturday for a massive demonstration called by Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro in the 2013 election while disputing the vote, but who has remained in the background of the latest protests.
Capriles did not attend the governors’ meeting Monday. He also called for the meeting to be broadcast on live television “so that the public can see and hear the truth.”
Maduro has called for “a national peace conference” to be held Wednesday “with all social, political, union and religious groups.”
The leftist leader also said he would ask the National Assembly to form a Truth Commission to look into the protests, which he claims are an attempt to “justify foreign intervention in Venezuela.”
Earlier Monday, meanwhile, Maduro told reporters in a radio and television address that a “mercenary from the Middle East” had been arrested in Aragua state for allegedly plotting to set off car bombs.
Maduro did not give the man’s nationality.
Aragua state governor Tareck El Aissami later tweeted that the suspect, identified as Jayssam Mokded Mokded, was detained in Maracay with an armed car, and with US and Colombian communications equipment.
US media identified Mokded as a resident of the US state of Florida; they did not give his nationality but his business is in a town with a large Venezuelan community.