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Venezuelan opposition to organize at grassroots

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Photo - A demonstrator with her mouth covered in tape and face painted in the colors of the Venezuelan flag protests in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 2, 2014. Since mid-February, anti-government activists have been protesting high inflation, shortages of food stuffs and medicine, and violent crime in a nation with the world's largest proven oil reserves. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A demonstrator with her mouth covered in tape and face painted in the colors of the Venezuelan flag protests in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, March 2, 2014. Since mid-February, anti-government activists have been protesting high inflation, shortages of food stuffs and medicine, and violent crime in a nation with the world's largest proven oil reserves. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A leader of the Venezuelan opposition called Monday for citizens to begin organizing committees that could sustain the pressure that continuing street protests have placed on the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles announced the effort via Twitter, directing people to a blog post that laid out plans for the so-called popular defense committees. In an apparent effort to organize and expand the opposition base, he said politics would be set aside, but that could be difficult in a country so polarized. Venezuela faces inflation that reached 56 percent last year, shortages of basic commodities and one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world.

"Leave aside the political agenda and violence which the government wants to draw us into, so that we can concentrate on the social problems that affect all of us," Capriles' statement said. The objective is to create a "great social movement" to press for change in the country.

The groups could begin with as few as three people: a coordinator, a logistics chief and someone in charge of publicity. Each of those members would be asked to get 10 more to join. The groups would meet to discuss problems in their community and potential solutions.

The protests have so far been mostly concentrated in middle class neighborhoods, including thousands who took to the streets on Sunday. The opposition faces the challenge of eroding Maduro's base of support among the poor and Capriles' message about confronting social problems affecting everyone seems to be an attempt to bridge that gap.

David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who spends part of the year conducting research in Caracas, said Capriles was urging the sort of grassroots organizing the opposition had talked of doing before the protests erupted, but had done very little of.

Capriles attached a list of previously articulated demands, including the release student protesters and fellow opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed Feb. 18 on charges of instigating violence.

He is the governor of Miranda state and narrowly lost an election last year to replace former President Hugo Chavez following his death.

Lopez himself also issued a statement from jail, calling for demonstrators to keep filling the streets and demanding resignation of the interior minister and chief prosecutor.

"There is no reason to give up our fight," he said in a message posted on YouTube. "We can't surrender." The message was read by Carlos Vecchio, political coordinator for Lopez's party, who said he was speaking from seclusion as he remains a step ahead of an order for his arrest on similar charges.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua met with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and defended the government's actions at a meeting of the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Ban said he would like to see tensions lowered.

"This aggression does not have its origin in social unrest," Jaua told the commission. He reported that 18 people had died in the student-led protests and said 73 people remained in custody.

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