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Sunday December 17th, 2017 3:14AM

Venezuela's Maduro: 'Mr. Donald Trump, here is my hand'

By The Associated Press
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro said Thursday he wants a meeting with President Donald Trump — the same man he ridicules as a crass imperial magnate and blasts for U.S. sanctions against officials in his socialist administration.

In a lengthy address to the 545 members of a new, all-powerful constitutional assembly, Maduro instructed Venezuela's foreign minister to approach the United States about arranging a telephone conversation or meeting with Trump.

"Mr. Donald Trump, here is my hand," the socialist president said, adding that he wants as strong a relationship with the U.S. as he has with Russia.

The remarks came shortly after Maduro forcefully warned the U.S. president that Venezuela "will never give in."

The Trump administration has called Maduro a "dictator" and issued sanctions against him and more than two dozen other former and current officials, accusing Maduro's government of violating human rights and undermining the country's democracy amid an escalating political and financial crisis.

On Thursday, Credit Suisse bank banned the trading and use of Venezuelan bonds, citing "recent developments and the political climate" in the country.

The bank will no longer trade, nor accept as collateral, two specific types of Venezuelan securities as well as any bonds the country issued from June 1 going forward, according to a company spokeswoman who was not authorized to give her name. Further, any businesses who wish to do business with Venezuela and deal in any assets there will have to go through additional screening.

Venezuela is facing mounting international criticism over a crackdown on opponents and moves to consolidate power, including the selection of the all-powerful assembly controlled by Maduro.

It is also in the midst of a severe economic downturn caused by low oil prices and poor government policies. The country's bonds are one of the few ways the current government is able to raise money to support its collapsing economy.

But as the country's political crisis has worsened, the bonds issued by the government as well as the state-owned oil company PDVSA have become a point of contention and concern for investors who increasingly worry they are supporting an oppressive regime as well as a country that is a great risk of defaulting on its debts. Goldman Sachs came under political pressure earlier this year for buying a reported $2.8 billion in Venezuelan bonds on the open market at a significant discount.

National Assembly President Julio Borges, leader of the country's opposition, has sent more than a dozen letters to leading global banks warning them of the risk to their reputations and bottom line if they throw a lifeline to Maduro.

On Wednesday, a fifth opposition mayor in Venezuela was removed from his post, part of what the opposition is calling a campaign to illegally remove anti-government mayors from their elected posts.

A small group of young people set up barricades of strewn metal objects in the eastern Caracas district of El Hatillo on Thursday to protest the Supreme Court decision to order Mayor David Smolansky imprisoned for 15 months for not obeying orders to shut down the protests.

We can't allow "the dictatorship to hunt down, imprison and treat our mayors like criminals," said Andres Paez, a lawyer who joined the protest.

Smolansky issued a video from an undisclosed location in which he called on residents of the El Hatillo to take to the streets to uphold their right to representation against what he called the government's "political firing squad."

"My commitment to restoring freedom in Venezuela remains intact," Smolansky said.

His arrest was ordered by the government-stacked Supreme Court less than 48 hours after it levied a similar sentence against Ramon Muchacho, another Caracas-area mayor.

Opposition leaders decried both rulings. According to their figures, about a third of the nation's opposition mayors have been removed from office or jailed or are under threat of arrest.

Gerardo Blyde, an opposition mayor of Baruta, a city of more than 350,000 near the capital, equated it to a sort of "Russian roulette."

"This is a continued coup against municipal public authority," he said.

___

Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Christine Armario in Miami and Ken Sweet in New York contributed to this report.

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