Motorcyclists waving Venezuelan flags attend a rally in support of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Since Feb. 12, opponents of President Nicolas Maduro have been staging countrywide protests that the government says have resulted in scores of deaths and more than one hundred injuries. The demonstrators blame Maduro's administration for the country's high crime rate and economic troubles. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
By BEN FOX and CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A meeting billed as a national dialogue for local and state officials in troubled Venezuela convened Monday without the country's most prominent opposition leader.
Gov. Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in the last two presidential elections, said he would not attend the meeting called by President Nicolas Maduro amid political turmoil that has engulfed the country in recent weeks.
Capriles did not say whether he would also sit out a national peace conference called by the president for Wednesday. Capriles, governor of wealthy Miranda state, told reporters that attending Monday's meeting would look like an endorsement for a government that he says has engaged in "repression" as troops and police have clashed with protesters.
"I am not going to make Nicolas Maduro look good ... That is what they want, that I go there as if the country was absolutely normal," he said.
Capriles also said he would not participate while another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, remains jailed along with dozens of others who have taken part in anti-government protests.
Lopez, a former mayor of a district in the capital, is being held in a military jail outside Caracas on charges that include criminal incitement of violence for organizing a mass opposition rally Feb. 12 that was followed by clashes that resulted in three deaths and set off waves of unrest that have roiled Venezuela ever since.
His wife, Lillian Tintori, said Lopez believes the time is not right for members of the opposition to sit down with Maduro.
"Look at the statements from Nicolas Maduro, every time he speaks, he insults us, he speaks with aggression, speaks with hate," she said following a news conference to announce a march Wednesday by opposition women.
Monday's session of the Federal Government Council was a previously scheduled meeting of all Venezuela's mayors and governors to discuss social and economic problems. At a special meeting of the group in January, following the slaying of a prominent actress with her husband in a robbery, Capriles and Maduro shook hands in a rare showing of cooperation.
This time, Capriles said he felt conditions were wrong for the encounter. "The only thing Maduro wanted was a handshake and a photo so he can tell the world that everything is OK," Capriles said.
Vice President Jorge Arreaza said at the start of the meeting that Maduro intended to preside over the session to discuss his peace plan for the country.
"We know that those of us who are here have the shared interest to build a peaceful society," Arreaza told the meeting, which was attended by two of the country's three opposition governors, Henri Falcon of Lara state and Liborio Guarulla of Amazonas state.
Though violent protests have died down, Venezuela remains tense. Opposition protesters erected barricades to block traffic on major streets in Caracas and elsewhere Monday but there were no major clashes.
Maduro told a rally of motorcycle-riding supporters that the blockades had prevented sick people from getting to the hospital. "They have affected the health of thousands of people in these communities that they have cut off," he said.
Since Feb. 12, opponents of Maduro have been staging countrywide protests that the government says have left at least 15 people dead and wounded about 150. Authorities have detained 579 people, of whom 45, including nine police officers and members of the National Guard, remain in custody, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said.
Tachira state Gov. Jose Vielma Mora, a member of Maduro's party, said the government should release all those detained, including Lopez, to promote peace. Then, in a very rare public criticism by a ruling party member, Vielma faulted as excessive some elements of the government's response to the protests in his state, including deploying warplanes to buzz over opposition protests.
The opposition blames Maduro's administration for the country's high crime rate and economic troubles and says his socialist-inspired polices have led to shortages of basic goods and inflation above 50 percent, among the world's highest, despite the country's vast oil reserves.
The president blames the violence on right-wing opponents of his government, accusing them of receiving support from abroad.
Maduro said Monday that authorities in the central state of Aragua had detained a "mercenary" from an unidentified Middle Eastern nation. Gov. Tareck El Aissami said on Twitter that the 34-year-old man had an armored vehicle, communications equipment from the U.S. and Colombia, an explosive device and material to build barricades.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez contributed to this report.