BOGOTA, Colombia — Monday might have made a good photo-op for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who is trying to calm a nation after more than two weeks of sometimes lethal protests. He was expecting to headline a meeting of governors and mayors to discuss investment issues, which would have put him in the same room with opposition Gov. Henrique Capriles for the second time this year.
Instead, Capriles was a no-show and there were signs of tensions even within Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV.
Monday morning, Tachira Gov. Jose Vielma Mora, a ruling-party member, said the government had committed “serious errors” in dealing with the demonstrations, and called for the release of opposition prisoners including Leopoldo López, who was detained last week.
In a lengthy interview with Venezuela’s Onda radio, Mora said the government needed to engage in “dialogue” with the opposition and take measures that would prove it’s interested in peace, including releasing detained students. Pressed on the issue, Mora said former policeman Ivan Simonovis, who has been in jail for almost a decade and is considered a political prisoner by the opposition, and López, who was detained last week for allegedly inciting violence during a Feb. 12 demonstration, should also be set free.
“Everyone who is in jail right now, send them home,” he said. “That’s how we can start peace.”
Hours later, as a backlash built on social media, Mora said he was firmly behind the administration.
“I’m with the revolution,” he wrote on Twitter. “I didn’t mean to cause any consternation or damage to the revolution.”
Even so, Mora’s conciliatory comments are in stark contrast to the fiery rhetoric of Maduro, who has accused protesters of trying to mount a U.S.-backed coup.
On Monday, Maduro said authorities had caught a “Middle Eastern mercenary” in Aragua state who he said was contracted by the opposition to plant car bombs.
“They want to fill our country with violence and take us toward madness like Libya or some cities in Syria,” he said. Maduro said National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello planned to provide more details on a nightly television show he hosts.
Despite indications last week that he would attend Monday’s meeting, Capriles called a press conference to pull the plug. He said he didn’t want his presence to help “wash the government’s face” and he didn’t want to sit in on another one of Maduro’s “monologues.”
“All they want is a photo of us shaking hands,” Capriles said, suggesting the government wanted to show that the opposition is divided. The country’s two other opposition governors, Henri Falcon from Lara state and Liborio Guarulla from Amazonas, were expected to attend.
Maduro has called for a broader meeting Wednesday to discuss the crisis.
Capriles also reiterated a list of demands for eventual peace talks, including the freeing of students and political prisoners, decriminalizing protests and the disarming of government-backed gangs called colectivos.
“Nicolás is a historical error, and we have to find a way out of this error,” he said, underscoring that the exit had to be within the parameters of the constitution.
Student protests that began early this month and went national last week continue to drive up the body count on both sides of the political divide. On Monday, authorities said two additional deaths had occurred that day that were thought to be protest related. That takes the body count to at least 12 since Feb. 12.
While the protests began over the deteriorating economy and security, they have expanded to include a laundry list of demands.
Maduro says the protests are tantamount to a right-wing coup but Mora was more measured. On Monday, he suggested that in the border state of Tachira the driving force was the economy, which has seen soaring inflation and sporadic shortages of everything from flour to toilet paper.
Mora won the 2012 governors race in Tachira, which borders Colombia, with 54 percent of the vote. The election was notable because Tachira has long been an opposition stronghold.
Mora also took exception to how the central government was handling the crisis in his state. Military jets, for example, were flown over the capital of San Cristobal last week. Mora called the show of force “excessive” and “absurd,” saying it only exacerbated tensions. He also denied that the Internet had been intentionally cut eek for more than two days last week. He said the outage was due to the theft of fiber optic cable and copper wiring.
While Tachira has seen some of the fiercest protests, Mora said he’s tried to keep bloodshed to a minimum. He said he replaced one of the heads of the National Guard for excessive use of force on Friday and had made changes in the attorney general’s office.
Mora said his restrained approach had many of his PSUV colleagues calling him a “coward.”
“I would prefer to have a burned installation than a death,” he said. “I would prefer they break all the windows out of a public building than to have one person injured.”