Venezuela protests not over, vows hardline Maduro foe

CARACAS Fri May 23, 2014 3:50pm EDT

1 of 7. Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado speaks during an interview with Reuters in Caracas May 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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CARACAS (Reuters) - A wave of protests against President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government in Venezuela will not let up and foreign sanctions could be useful, a hardline opposition leader said on Friday.

The OPEC nation's worst unrest in a decade has seen 42 people killed during months of daily protests calling for Maduro's departure and solutions to economic hardships.

Though demonstrations have dwindled in recent weeks, one of their main promoters, Maria Corina Machado, said the president had been weakened and opponents would keep the heat on.

"A Venezuela that felt dominated, resigned and terrified has woken up," the right-wing politician, prominent in organizing nationwide rallies since February, told Reuters.

"This is the beginning of the beginning. We will have a transition to democracy in the near future ... not in 2019," she said, pointing to a recall referendum allowed in 2016 as a constitutional way to abridge Maduro's six-year term.

Meanwhile, targeted foreign sanctions against individuals could be beneficial, she added.

"In some regimes, as there's no internal justice, they think 'we have impunity, nothing is going to happen to me, whether they steal all the money in a hospital or shoot students.'"

Some U.S. lawmakers are urging sanctions on Venezuelan officials, though the Obama administration thinks that may hurt prospects for political reconciliation. Sanctions could also irk many in a region scarred by a history of U.S.-backed coups.

"I KNOW WHAT YOU EAT"

Wealthy, English-speaking Machado, 46, is depicted by the Maduro government as the representative of an out-of-touch Venezuelan elite upset they no longer run the oil-rich nation.

She was a member of a U.S.-financed group that helped collect signatures for a failed recall referendum against late president Hugo Chavez in 2004. A picture of her smiling with former U.S. President George W. Bush did not help endear her.

Machado laughed at accusations of being a foreign puppet, saying Venezuela's second most powerful official, parliamentary head Diosdado Cabello - who recently kicked Machado out of the legislature - had openly acknowledged surveillance of her.

"Once Mr. Cabello told me: 'I know what you eat'. He records conversations with my mother ... Do you think they wouldn't have publicly revealed it if anyone in Venezuela had that sort of relationship (with the United States)?"

Machado has been among various Venezuelan politicians at the center of phone-tapping scandals, with one private chat with her mother widely played on state TV.

Those concerned with foreign meddling should look at Cuban influence at the Miraflores presidential palace, she said. "And they accuse me of external interference? For God's sake!"

She also slammed Latin American countries for "abandoning Venezuela," arguing regional powerhouse Brazil has a double standard on human rights.

Machado, and jailed fellow protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, have also come under fire from moderates within Venezuela's fragmented opposition who believe barricades, blockades and marches are a nuisance and fuel accusations they're coup-mongerers.

"The regime tells us that proposing a change of regime ... will lead us to civil war," Machado said. "That's a lie."

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)

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