By Andrew Cawthorne and Eyanir Chinea
CARACAS (Reuters) – Imprisoned Venezuelan protest leader Leopoldo Lopez scoffed on Friday at President Nicolas Maduro's efforts to open talks with opponents and businessman after a month of demonstrations and violence that have killed at least 17 people.
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Maduro, 51, seems to have weathered the worst of an explosion of protests against his socialist government that exposed deep discontent with Venezuela's economic problems and brought the nation's worst unrest in a decade.
Some students are still setting up roadblocks and clashing with police in Caracas and western Tachira state. But numbers have dropped, and many Venezuelans have begun heading for the beach to enjoy a long weekend for Carnival celebrations.
To try to defuse the crisis further, Maduro and his top officials have been holding talks with business leaders and some anti-government politicians, though the main opposition figureheads such as Henrique Capriles have boycotted that.
Lopez, a hardline opposition leader arrested on charges of fomenting violence, said Maduro's talk of dialogue was a hypocritical tactic intended to deflate the protests while failing to address the real problems behind them.
"‘The dialogue' is a tactical retreat, as a result of the pressure in the streets. It's not real conviction," Lopez said in a message from Ramo Verde prison given to his wife who Tweeted it via her husband's account @leopoldolopez.
"Maduro's dialogue is: ‘come to Miraflores (presidential palace) and while I speak to the nation, I pursue, kill and repress in the streets'."
More people were injured on Thursday night as riot police used teargas against masked and stone-throwing students trying to block a major highway in Caracas. Handfuls of demonstrators blocked several roads again on Friday morning.
More than 250 people have been injured around Venezuela this month, and another 500 or so arrested, authorities said. The prosecutor general told local media 17 people had died, the latest victim shot clearing up a barricade in Carabobo state.
Of those, 55 remain behind bars. They are mostly protesters, but include seven intelligence agents and security officials accused in the shooting of two people in downtown Caracas after a February 12 rally that sparked the worst trouble.
The president says that about 50 people have died in total due to the protests, but that includes indirectly linked cases such as people unable to reach hospitals due to blocked roads.
"STAYING ON THE STREET"
"The student movement is staying on the streets because of all our friends in jail simply for protesting," said Andres Miranda, a 27-year-old economy student, speaking after clashes late on Thursday in the affluent El Rosal district of Caracas.
The students are calling for a major march on Sunday.
Activists on both sides were trying to score points over Carnival by posting photos of either empty or overflowing Caribbean beaches – with few clues as to when the pictures were taken or, often, where.
Tourism Minister Andres Izarra and other government supporters packed their Twitter feeds with pictures of holidaymakers at beaches or beauty spots like Angel Falls in an attempt to show that the protests were over.
Opposition activists, however, posted photos of other deserted-looking beaches to try to show that Venezuelans were not in a holiday mood given recent events.
"Not a soul at this time," said one photo doing the rounds of a beach in Anzoategui province.
With local TV barely covering the unrest on the streets in recent weeks, Venezuelans have been turning to social media for news. But a plethora of falsified images, some showing police fighting with protesters in countries as far away as Bulgaria or Egypt, have also been doing the rounds.
The nation is essentially on holiday until next Thursday.
Maduro brought forward the long weekend for Carnival, then Wednesday will see national commemorations for the anniversary of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez's death.
Ten months after his narrow election win to succeed his mentor, Maduro has consolidated his leadership of the ruling Socialist Party but failed to make much headway on Venezuela's rampant violent crime or nagging economic problems.
Annual inflation of more than 56 percent and shortages of basic products ranging from milk and flour to toilet paper and medicines are afflicting all Venezuelans whatever their political convictions.
Analysts say that while this round of protests may die down, the economy will remain Maduro's biggest headache. Business leaders have been urging him to reform the statist economic model established by Chavez during his 14-year rule.
The United Nations again called for dialogue and an end to violence in Venezuela on Friday.
"The inflammatory rhetoric from all sides is utterly unhelpful and risks escalating the tense situation in the country," U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said, calling for an independent investigation into the deaths.
"It is time for all sides to move beyond verbal aggression and towards meaningful dialogue. This crisis will only be resolved if the human rights of all Venezuelans are respected."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was discussing with Colombia and other nations the possibility of international mediation in Venezuela.