CARACAS — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called on Barack Obama to "accept the challenge" and hold direct talks, a surprise overture made Friday after days of accusing Washington of plotting his overthrow.
The dramatic announcement came after nearly three weeks of often violent anti-government protests in Caracas and other major cities, widely seen as the biggest test to Maduro since he succeeded Hugo Chavez last year.
Venezuela's relations with the United States, long strained under Chavez, have worsened under Maduro, who has hewed closely to his predecessor's socialist policies and has never spoken directly to his American counterpart.
Maduro, who was narrowly elected last year, said: "I call a dialogue with you, President Obama . . . between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government."
"Accept the challenge and we will start a high-level dialogue and put the truth on the table," Maduro, whose under-pressure government claims Venezuelan opposition leaders are in Washington's pay, told foreign reporters.
U.S. agencies "have given the green light for the overthrow of the government that I lead," Maduro said, urging Obama to show that he can "initiate a change in policy, at least in Latin America and the Caribbean."
Maduro also said Saturday that remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the unrest in Venezuela gave violent groups a "green light" to carry out attacks.
In a tweet, Maduro also slammed the remarks made by Kerry late Friday as "arrogant" and "insolent."
"John Kerry threatens Venezuela with more violence, with his statements gives the green light to violent groups to attack our people," Maduro wrote.
Kerry on Friday condemned Venezuela's "unacceptable" use of force against anti-government protesters, and declined to respond to a call from Caracas for bilateral talks.
"The government's use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures, who are exercising a legitimate right to protest, is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence," Kerry said.
Maduro proposed in his remarks Friday to restore ties to the ambassadorial level and said he had given his foreign minister "special powers" to handle bilateral dialogue.
Venezuela and America have not had ambassadors in each other's countries since late 2010, and Caracas has expelled eight U.S. diplomats over the past year, including three this week.
Obama has called on the leftist rulers in Caracas to address the "legitimate grievances" of its people — comments that were dismissed by Maduro in recent days as U.S. meddling in Venezuela's sovereign affairs.
Students and the opposition are spearheading a nationwide protest movement in Venezuela that has left eight people dead and 137 wounded, and seen more than 100 detained since the demonstrations broke out.
In a move filled with anti-U.S. sentiment, Maduro has threatened to block American broadcaster CNN, accusing the network of inciting "civil war."
CNN said several of its journalists working in Venezuela, on both Spanish-language and English-language programs, had seen their press credentials revoked or refused.
But Maduro's remarks on Friday, which did not meet with an immediate response from Washington, were altogether different.
"What we want is peace with the United States, respect, cooperation," Maduro added in urging Obama to also appoint a negotiator to talks.
"We love the American people, we admire their culture, their music."
The protesters on Venezuelan streets, however, are agitating against a government that has the world's largest proven oil reserves, but which has also overseen deteriorating economic conditions, rampant street crime, corruption and increasingly dire job prospects.
As well as cracking down on foreign and domestic media, Maduro's government — which blames right-wing infiltrators for fomenting unrest — warned it would cut off gasoline supplies to restless areas.
There have been near-daily protests in San Cristobal, the state capital of Tachira, while four of the eight killed have been in Caracas, three from gunshot wounds during a huge student and opposition protest on February 12, Attorney General Luisa Ortega said.
In the north-central state of Carabobo, a young beauty queen was shot in the head during opposition protests and a prosecutor died after crashing his car while trying to evade a roadblock set up by protesters.
Investigators were also examining the case of a young man allegedly "raped with a gun" after being arrested in Carabobo's capital, Valencia, one of the epicenters of the unrest.
Among the injured, 100 are civilians and the rest are from the security forces.
The opposition is planning another major march in the capital on Saturday to demand the disarming of pro-government civilian groups reportedly involved in attacks on demonstrators.
The government has called for a rival rally by "Chavista women" at the same time, raising the specter of more clashes between the two sides.
The United States has also expressed concern over the jailing of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and insisted that any charges against him be handled in an "impartial and transparent" manner.
The Harvard-educated economist, 42, in custody since his arrest Tuesday, has been charged with instigating violence, property damage and criminal association. He was blamed for the fatal shootings on Feb. 12.
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