A year after Chavez's death, Venezuelan leader cuts ties with Panama

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolas Maduro said Wednesday that  he is breaking diplomatic relations with Panama, a decision he announced amid commemorations of the first anniversary of predecessor Hugo Chavez's death and continuing protests against Maduro's administration.

Maduro said he was taking action because Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli criticized police actions against Venezuelan protesters and because the Central American leader has urged that the Organization of American States debate Maduro’s alleged repression of the demonstrators.

Referring to protests that have roiled the country for three weeks, Maduro said he rejected any OAS debate of them as interference.

Martinelli has also called for the release of Leopoldo Lopez,  former mayor of a Caracas borough and s Maduro critic who was arrested Feb. 18 on charges of incitement to violence.

“A right-wing government is planning to convoke a meeting of the OAS to justify intervention by foreign forces in Venezuela,” Maduro said after a military parade in Chavez’s honor that was attended by thousands of red-shirted supporters. He called Martinelli a “lackey” conspiring with the United States.

On Thursday, the OAS is scheduled to discuss the Venezuelan situation in a meeting in Washington.

Maduro and presidents Raul Castro of Cuba, Evo Morales of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua attended ceremonies that included an observance at Chavez’s tomb in a military museum in western Caracas. Fireworks were set off and cannons fired at 4:15 p.m., the time that   Chavez, Venezuela's fiery leftist leader, died last year at age 58.

Protest marches were reported in Caracas and several other cities. Authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds in the Altamira and Chacao sections of Caracas, the capital.

At least 18 people have been killed and hundreds injured in protests that began in western Tachira state and swept across many Venezuelan cities in recent weeks. Demonstrators have railed against high inflation, food shortages and a high violent crime rate.

Maduro reiterated his willingness to talk to opposition leaders. But his opponents have conditioned such talks on the release of Lopez and others, who they say are political prisoners.

Special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.

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