An anti-government demonstrator is handcuffed after he and others where detained by the Bolivarian National Guard, during clashes at a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 14, 2014. / Fernando Llano, AP
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Venezuelan security forces arrested scores of people during a sweep of a busy Caracas avenue as protests against the government heated up amid a widening split within the opposition over whether to back possible U.S. sanctions.
The student-led protest Wednesday came a day after the opposition froze talks with President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government, saying dialogue was impossible after the arrest last week of more than 200 student protesters who had been camping for weeks outside the United Nations offices and three plazas in the capital.
Many political observers believe that by halting the talks, moderate opposition leaders were caving to pressure from their own radical base, which is fuming following the mass arrests and confusing statements about sanctions by the top U.S. diplomat to Latin America.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affair, testified last week in the Senate that some members of Venezuela's opposition are urging the White House to keep on ice a proposal to ban visas and seize the assets of Venezuelan officials who've committed human rights abuses during the past three months of unrest. Legislation to that end last week cleared a House committee with bipartisan support.
In a fiery exchange with Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Jacobson said the restraint is needed so as not to endanger the outcome of the talks and that opposition politicians at the negotiating table had explicitly asked the State Department for more time before imposing any sanctions.
On Wednesday, Jacobson retracted her comment, telling reporters in Washington that she misspoke and that nobody participating in the dialogue had made such a request.
But her comments became a political hot potato for the opposition, with Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the mild-spoken head of the Democratic Unity alliance, denying any such plea was made. Meanwhile, students and hardliners boycotting the talks seized on Jacobson's comments, and Aveledo's failure to call for sanctions, as proof of betrayal.
Divisions within the opposition had been apparent for some time, with moderates objecting to the timing of street protests in February just two months after the government prevailed in mayoral elections.
Key to the strategy of hard-line groups looking to force Maduro's resignation is rallying international opinion against his government. But in contrast to the U.S., condemnation has been slow to materialize among governments in Latin America. Moderate leaders supported talks with the government.
"There's a clear division in the opposition about whether you play the game of politics or seek international intervention," David Smilde, an analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, said in an interview from Caracas.
Some members of the opposition acknowledge that sanctions would be counterproductive, possibly setting up the Obama administration to be blamed for Venezuela's economic troubles much as the U.S.'s half-century embargo against Cuba is used to bolster support for that country's communist government.
Even before Tuesday's suspension, the crisis talks had seemed to be faltering.
Progress on a range of issues, from loosening the state's grip on the economy to filling of positions on the national electoral council, had been almost non-existent.
Against opposition calls for a nonpartisan truth commission to investigate the 41 deaths on both sides, the government recently said it was going ahead with its own probe headed by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro ally. Another government negotiator on Monday dismissed an opposition proposal of an amnesty for jailed activists as as a "fantasy."
Meanwhile the crackdown continued.
On Wednesday, National Guardsmen fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a protest of a few dozen students. Office workers scrambled for cover and high school students were among those slapped with plastic handcuffs and hauled away. There were no reports of major injuries.
Such aggressive tactics are likely to further enrage Maduro's opponents.
Amid the tensions, foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador were traveling to Caracas on Thursday in attempt to restart the talks.
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