Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday sat down with the opposition for a first round of talks in an attempt to end two months of deadly protests, while he insisted that no negotiations or pacts would be made.
The landmark meeting, which involved about 20 representatives from both sides, was monitored by diplomats from the Vatican and the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. It was broadcast on national television and radio.
“The road here was long and complicated, but it was worth it ... we are going to listen patiently, and with respect and tolerance, to the compatriots of the opposition,” Maduro said, but cautioned against unrealistic expectations.
“There are no negotiations here. No pacts. All we’re looking for is a model of peaceful coexistence, of mutual tolerance.”
Some hardline opposition groups, including the party of jailed protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, boycotted the talks while dozens of demonstrators remain in jail.
Reporting on the ground in Caracas, journalist Andrew Rosati told FRANCE 24 that the fact that the talks are monitored by Venezuela’s South American neighbours is putting a lot of pressure on the parties to try to find a solution to the crisis.
“If they turn away… they really damage credibility,” he said.
Death toll rises
On Thursday, authorities said the official death toll had reached 40 after a policeman was shot dead in western Barquisimeto city while dispersing a demonstration.
Since the protests began in early February, about 650 people have been injured, officials say. More than 2,000 people have been detained, and 174 are still behind bars.
Maduro has blamed the protests on US-backed radical opponents, saying they are trying to repeat the destabilizing events that led to the 2002 coup that briefly removed late socialist leader Hugo Chavez from power.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a top opposition leader, said the face-to-face discussions were long overdue.
“Something has gone very wrong for a meeting between the government and the opposition to be rare,” he said, adding that they must find a way to stop the bloodshed.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in last year’s election to replace Chavez, attended the meeting.
Eleven opposition delegates and 11 “Chavistas” were given 10 minutes each to speak after Maduro’s opening remarks.
Pope weighs in
Both sides have called on the Roman Catholic Church to be a “good faith” witness. At the start of Thursday’s discussions, the Vatican’s envoy to Venezuela read a letter from the Pope, encouraging the efforts to find peace.
Earlier this week, Maduro said the talks should be in the form of a "debate" rather than negotiations, since concluding a deal with the opposition would make him a "traitor to Chavismo."
Maduro says that if the opposition wants to get rid of him, it would have to be via the ballot only. His foes could force a presidential “recall referendum” in 2016 if they garner about 4 million signatures for it. Maduro’s six-year term ends in 2019.
Protesters are angered by Venezuela's soaring crime, high inflation and a shortage of basic goods.
Both sides said those issues would figure high in the talks.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-04-11