Venezuela’s socialist government and opposition on Monday announced surprise talks for the weekend to deal with a worsening political standoff since the suspension of a referendum drive to remove unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.
The two sides will meet on the Caribbean island of Margarita on Sunday, mediated by the Vatican, regional bloc Unasur, and three former heads of state.
“At last we are installing a dialogue between the opposition and the legitimate government,” Maduro said from Rome, after a meeting with Pope Francis who urged him to alleviate Venezuelans’ suffering during a brutal economic crisis.
Past conversations between the bitterly polarized sides have led to little progress. The opposition says Maduro is an inept autocrat who must leave office before the crisis worsens while the former bus driver and union leader vows not to be pushed out by what he calls a power-hungry elite seeking a coup.
Opposition coalition head Jesus Torrealba was cautious about the talks. “Dialogue cannot mean a government strategy to win time…. It’s a space to fight for a better country for all,” he said after meeting a Vatican envoy in Caracas.
News of talks seemed to take some members of the opposition by surprise, potentially re-awakening divisions within the diverse coalition and irritating activists who feel Maduro is not seriously committed to dialogue.
“Today at 7 p.m…. we will talk about the news we’ve found out about on television,” tweeted two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
“WE WANT FREEDOM!”
The opposition is calling nationwide protests for Wednesday as Venezuela’s third year of recession has many skipping meals due to widespread food shortages and spiraling prices.
No official agenda of the talks was announced, but the opposition is bound to bring up complaints about the failure of its referendum bid to remove Maduro and sidelining of the National Assembly, while the government will likely detail charges that its foes are guilty of fraud, violence and coup plans.
During a protest on Monday, student leaders said 27 demonstrators were injured in clashes with security forces in the volatile border city of San Cristobal near Colombia.
“We want freedom!” chanted the several hundred protesters, who barricaded roads with burning rubble.
A hotbed of anti-Maduro sentiment, San Cristobal was the site of the worst violence during protests two years ago that led to 43 deaths around the nation.
Students also held scattered protests in other places, including the capital Caracas, but most were holding fire for Wednesday’s rallies dubbed “The Takeover of Venezuela.”
Foes say Maduro, 53, has veered into dictatorship by sidelining the opposition-led congress, jailing critics and then leaning on compliant judicial and electoral authorities to stop the referendum.
Many of Venezuela’s 30 million people fear the standoff will create more unrest in a nation already exhausted by political confrontation, a plunging economy, and rampant crime.